After decades of combating foreign terrorism, the United States now has a new terrorism priority: the homegrown kind.
While virtually every country at some point confronts enraged and disaffected citizenry, in the United States, that has historically meant “lone wolves” such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in 1995, or Ted Kaczynski (also known as the Unabomber), who over the course of 17 years would send increasingly sophisticated homemade bombs that killed three Americans and injured dozens more.
“It is an epidemic. There is no question there’s a rise in antisemitism, racism,” said Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush from 2004 through 2008. “What we need to understand is many of the lessons learned about fighting international terrorism apply here domestically.”
While the United States has now effectively named domestic terrorism from far-right groups as the No. 1 threat to national security in the country, it’s still behind its foreign efforts to understand the motivations of these terrorists.
Townsend, long a staple in U.S. national security discussions, has said that the dangers from extremist groups like the Oathkeepers or Proud Boys are now on par with the threat al-Qaida and the Islamic State group posed to the U.S. in the early part of the 21st century.
The Rise in White Nationalism
While there are multiple reasons for the growth of any movement, the rise in white nationalism and the violence it stokes dovetails nicely with the erosion of political discourse in the country. That erosion is likely to fuel the fire that kindles fringe domestic terror groups.
The number of assaults by white supremacists has increased dramatically over the past several years, years that have been marked by divisive politics and the demonization of various groups of the American citizenry. The FBI cited new highs in hate crimes in 2019, with more than 7,000 cataloged in that year. The FBI said that’s also likely an undercount.
“When the terrorist is a white person, we tend to make excuses, right? ‘They’re crazy,’ right? As opposed to saying, if it was a Muslim, ‘They’re a terrorist,’” said Frances Townsend. “We have to label this for what it is, and we’ve got to be honest and not make excuses.”
The Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that “right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between Jan. 1 and May 8, 2020.”
The culmination of over a decade of increased domestic terrorism efforts from white supremacist groups came during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots in 2021, in which several law enforcement officers attempting to quell the attack and rioters participating in the sedition later lost their lives.
The State of Political Discourse Today
Political discourse, in a common definition, seems to revolve around how those with opposing viewpoints treat each other in a sociopolitical setting. Politicians, operatives, political party action committees, and cable news talking heads often take the lead in this, with their amplified viewpoints creating a blueprint on how, and in what manner, conversations take place among the populace.
But it isn’t just limited to those upfront players. The political discourse in the United States, as it has evolved to have the very foundations of government and law enforcement questioned, has created some holes in how the U.S. combats domestic terrorism.
Calls from far-right cable news hosts such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson to distrust the attorney general’s motivations for conducting an investigation — or their push to demonize the FBI for conducting a raid to protect national security interests — sow discord not just among the populace, but among those who work in said institutions.
Frances Townsend discussed as much in an interview earlier this year. She referenced the churchgoers that were attacked in Charleston, South Carolina, leaving nine dead; the 11 worshipers who were murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the 23 who were killed in a mass shooting at a Texas Walmart as recent evidence of domestic terrorist activity and how the various agencies who are tasked with preventing these attacks perhaps don’t have the level of communication and trust to do so.
“They’re hiring agents into the FBI who don’t necessarily see their promotions based on the number of arrests,” Frances Townsend said in an interview in May 2022. She adds that the Department of Homeland Security is “a baby in the federal system, and it’s still fighting for its rightful place at the policy table.”
She said that lack of communication led to another flash point back in 2009, when a shooting at Fort Hood military base in Texas saw 13 killed and 30 injured.
“As long as we’re talking about a failure to share information between DHS and FBI in the Fort Hood shooting, there was a failure to share information between [the Department of Defense] and FBI. So this is not a circumscribed, narrow problem,” she said.
The Domestic Terrorism and Prevention Act
Some lawmakers have looked for ways to elevate the threat level of domestic terrorism and increase the communication level between the agencies working to stop the threats.
The Domestic Terrorism and Prevention Act, put forth by Democrats Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, was supposed to be a step in that direction.
The bill, shorthand DTPA, would “authorize domestic terrorism offices within the Department of Justice Department (DOJ), Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI and requires biannual reporting on the state of domestic terrorism threats,” according to a statement by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also requires the offices to “focus their limited resources on the most significant threats, as determined by the joint report. The intent of the legislation is to equip these agencies better and enable them to work together to identify risks and successfully thwart domestic terror threats effectively.”
The bill passed out of committee and the House before it was filibustered by Senate Republicans, led by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a Republican who represents South Dakota, said the bill was “unnecessary.
“It’s a lot of stuff they already have authority to do,” Thune said in an interview with CNN in late May.
But clearly, the agencies aren’t working together in an effective manner.
Townsend said that the lack of urgency or a formal, long-term plan for combating domestic terrorism leaves the United States open to a situation that’s all too familiar: A tragedy strikes, the country briefly mourns, and then, as Frances Townsend put it: “Everybody goes back to their day job. And it begins to slowly dissipate and go back to the way it was.”
As long as the discourse between parties, politicians and government agencies remains combative and charged, the idea of implementing a workable solution is in peril and the United States will continue to sail in the doldrums when it comes to enacting meaningful, and necessary, change.