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Opinion
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Guest Column
Congress should make domestic terrorism a crime | Column
Remarkably, engaging in political violence is only a federal crime if the conduct “transcends international borders,” a Duke professor writes.
On Jan. 6, supporters of Donald Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol.
On Jan. 6, supporters of Donald Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol. [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]
Published Jan. 20
Updated Jan. 20

The brazen mob that overran the Capitol and attacked our democracy on Jan. 6 demonstrated to all Americans what many observers have been warning about for years – we have a serious domestic terrorism threat on our hands. This threat has been coddled for far too long. The atrocities committed at the Capitol appear to have finally summoned the national will to take firm action against this movement. It is time to get to it.

David Schanzer
David Schanzer [ Provided ]

The origins of today’s domestic terrorism reach back centuries to the white supremacy that justified and institutionalized slavery before our nation was even founded. This white nationalism expresses itself in multiple forms — neo-Confederates, anti-government/anti-police groups like the Boogaloos, neo-Nazis, heavily armed militias and so-called “patriot” groups.

The deeply disturbing aspect of the Capitol assault is that these strands of domestic extremism have galvanized under the banner of what I believe is best labeled “Trumpian Terrorism.”

The charismatic leader of the movement is, of course, one Donald J. Trump, who, despite his elite pedigree, gave voice to its grievances and signaled approval of its ideas and activities. Indeed, Trump called them “very fine people” — something no popular figure in America had done for decades.

Trump gained his exalted status with these groups by giving voice to their deep fear that political and economic power in America is slipping from the white majority and advancing policies to bolster white power, like restricting all forms of immigration.

Trump mobilized his followers to violence by convincing them that their fears were coming true — they were losing political power because a coalition of racial and ethnic minorities, liberals and urban elites were “stealing” it from them via a fraudulent election.

As a result, society is currently at risk large-scale movement of aggrieved citizens, stimulated by the success of the Capitol assault, that is ready, willing and able to engage in additional violence.

This movement can be contained and ultimately pushed back to the fringes of society. Here is how:

First, law enforcement cannot permit additional mob violence to succeed. Terrorist movements gain momentum from the kind of success achieved in Washington, D.C. Police, with support from National Guards, must allow for peaceful protest, but have zero tolerance for violence at these protests.

Second, the perpetrators of the Capitol attack need to be arrested and prosecuted to the greatest extent the law allows. The full force of the law was not being imposed on these actors even as little as two months ago as evidenced by Kyle Rittenhouse’s release on bail even though he faces two homicide charges in the shooting of Black Lives Matter protestors. Indeed, many members of this movement are so accustomed to getting away with their acts of hatred and intimidation that they are genuinely shocked at being arrested for their lawlessness at the Capitol.

Third, investigations must extend not just to the perpetrators, but to all those who planned and funded the violence. The rioters who are facing serious jail time have every incentive to tell investigators about how their organizations are structured, who the ringleaders are, and how they are financed. This information will be useful for countering domestic terrorism even if additional suspects cannot be charged.

Fourth, Congress should make domestic terrorism a crime. Remarkably, engaging in political violence is only a federal crime if the conduct “transcends international borders.” Making acts of domestic political violence a federal crime would enable law enforcement to both charge violent white supremacists as terrorists and prosecute those who knowingly organize and fund political violence. Outlawing such financing will provide the government a potent tool to dismantle the infrastructure supporting the people who attacked the Capitol.

Finally, as long as Trump continues to perpetrate the lie that the election was stolen and advocate that his followers “fight” to reverse the election, he should be shunned and marginalized by civil society. Traditional and social media companies have a both the right and responsibility to prevent these dangerous falsehoods from being repeated on their platforms.

Citizens can also use their market power against companies that support these ideas through political donations or advertisements on networks that continue to spread lies. Doing so is not “cancel culture” — it is actually citizens exercising their rights to protest ideas they find abhorrent.

No one should mistake these recommendations as steps directed against the 74 million citizens who supported Donald Trump in the last election. They had every right to vote that way and to continue to support him.

These actions are necessary, however, to combat the small fraction of Trump supporters willing to engage in violence to advance their political goals. These domestic terrorists are a cancer on the body politic that need to be excised.

David Schanzer is the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and a professor of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.