Voice

9/11 Was a Wake-Up Call. America Is Still Snoozing After the Capitol Assault.

Domestic extremism is the greatest threat to the homeland—yet it’s not getting nearly enough public attention.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
A member of the National Guard at the U.S. Capitol.
A member of the National Guard provides security at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, the U.S. intelligence community warned that domestic extremists, emboldened by the siege on the U.S. Capitol and by conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic and alleged fraud in the 2020 election, will almost certainly attempt violent attacks this year. The assessment cites a contentious political environment as one of the main factors motivating white supremacists and militias, followed a warning by FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this month that the threat of domestic terrorism in the United States is “metastasizing.”

These dire warnings sound eerily like the threat the United States faced after the 9/11 attacks. Then, Americans easily united against what was framed as a foreign—and Muslim—enemy that was trying to kill U.S. citizens. But today’s enemy defies such tidy characterizations. There is no bearded Osama bin Laden hiding in a cave, just hundreds of Timothy McVeighs huddling at home.

That could explain why Americans have become desensitized to the proliferation of hatred, anger, and violence that simmered for decades—at least since McVeigh’s deadly bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995—but that has been unmistakably out in the open in the past four years, especially since the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Last week, the U.S. intelligence community warned that domestic extremists, emboldened by the siege on the U.S. Capitol and by conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic and alleged fraud in the 2020 election, will almost certainly attempt violent attacks this year. The assessment cites a contentious political environment as one of the main factors motivating white supremacists and militias, followed a warning by FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this month that the threat of domestic terrorism in the United States is “metastasizing.”

These dire warnings sound eerily like the threat the United States faced after the 9/11 attacks. Then, Americans easily united against what was framed as a foreign—and Muslim—enemy that was trying to kill U.S. citizens. But today’s enemy defies such tidy characterizations. There is no bearded Osama bin Laden hiding in a cave, just hundreds of Timothy McVeighs huddling at home.

That could explain why Americans have become desensitized to the proliferation of hatred, anger, and violence that simmered for decades—at least since McVeigh’s deadly bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995—but that has been unmistakably out in the open in the past four years, especially since the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Last year, a Ku Klux Klan member plowed through a Black Lives Matter protest, mowing down peaceful demonstrators. Armed extremists hatched a plot to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan for imposing restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus; similar plots threatened other states. But even those once-unthinkable bursts of extremism failed to rise to the level of national soul-searching and instead just became part of the toxic, partisan political discourse.

On Jan. 6, all that hate and anger finally boiled over as a mob overtook the U.S. Capitol. For a fleeting moment, the United States was united in shock and disbelief at the clear intent of the rioters to do physical harm to police officers, members of Congress, and even then-Vice President Mike Pence.

A long-term approach to reducing homegrown extremism must go beyond law enforcement.

Less than three months later, that shock—and unity—has evaporated, only to be replaced by politics. Several Republican lawmakers continue to legitimize the attack and dismiss efforts to investigate the attempted insurrection as a political stunt. Sen. Ron Johnson, one of former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, even ran interference for the insurrectionists, calling them patriots who respect law enforcement. Even as the FBI released videos of officers being beaten with baseball bats, Johnson complained that the left was trying to “cancel” him. Last week, when Congress voted to award gold medals to the local police forces who protected the Capitol, 12 Republicans voted against the bill.

The same politicization of extremism was also on display in the House of Representatives last week when Republican Rep. Chip Roy sought to turn a hearing addressing the alarming rise in violence against Asian Americans into a jeremiad on his First Amendment right to rail against China. That would have been unthinkable if the extremists were Islamic jihadis.

And that’s the mystery. After 9/11, the United States completely overhauled its homeland security and intelligence apparatus to deal with terrorists, and it launched a 20-year series of global counterterrorism campaigns that are still ongoing. But that’s part of the problem: It was a global fight, when the battlefield today is found at home. An October 2020 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found right-wing extremists were behind two-thirds of the terrorist plots in 2020 up to that point. Since 2016, they have executed more attacks than any other domestic or foreign group. The Department of Homeland Security identifies racially and ethnically motivated domestic violent extremists, specifically white supremacist groups, as “the most persistent and lethal threat” to the homeland.

To be sure, many of those white supremacist groups belong to a global far-right ideology radicalizing online. Last month, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are becoming a “transnational threat.” What sets the United States apart are two things.

First, it has more guns than any other country—more even than war-torn Yemen—which are stockpiled by trained self-styled militias with whom white supremacists have found common cause. And the United States has a perpetual-motion outrage machine, including media networks, political consultants, and lawmakers, that stokes political anger with little regard for the consequences. Far-right ideologues are being weaponized by a shared sense of identity and purpose. Organized white supremacist organizations, which the intelligence community says played an outsized role in both the Capitol riot and at the Charlottesville rally, have been remarkably effective in uniting a wide variety of extremist groups by stoking grievances, like the pandemic response or the election, and summoning them to violence.

The failure to prevent the violence of Jan. 6, which had been advertised in plain sight for weeks beforehand, makes it clear that the United States needs a strategic response to dealing with white nationalist ideology before it turns even more violent. That’s not as simple as it sounds. For starters, government agencies don’t agree about how to characterize the threat. There is also no official terrorist designation for domestic groups that have their roots in extremist political ideologies, even if they espouse violence. If capitol rioters were coordinating online with jihadis, America’s counterterrorism antennae would certainly have been all over the plot well before the Capitol was stormed and five people were killed.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, pending in Congress, would make it easier to monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism, with a specific focus on white supremacist groups. Congress took action after 9/11, too—but also committed many blunders. The Patriot Act and other counterterrorism policies legitimized the racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans that led to hate crimes and harassment, all creating a legacy of distrust that still haunts the Arab American community today. Similar fears of overzealous surveillance unite human rights and civil liberties groups, with lawmakers on both sides in opposition to the current legislation.

The Capitol riot laid bare the dangers of ignoring the growing domestic extremist threat.

Ultimately, a long-term approach to reducing homegrown extremism must go beyond law enforcement to unpack just how and why many people find these ideologies appealing—and how they can be deradicalized. For a time, many believed that Trump-style nationalist populism was about economic anxiety—which, if true, would be something the government could address through new industrial and trade policies to buoy those left behind by globalization.

But the melange of extremist factions from across the country uniting under a rubric of hatred suggests that their anger stems from something else, such as fear of losing their identity in a country whose demographics are inexorably changing—not something the government can fix with a few tariffs.

The Capitol riot laid bare the dangers of ignoring the growing domestic extremist threat, now emanating from a tangled web of individuals, groups, and ideologies. But it was not an isolated event. FBI Director Wray said the bureau is currently working on upward of 2,000 domestic terrorism investigations. Without a national reckoning about what is happening in the country—and a genuinely bipartisan effort to counter the challenge, like the one seen after 9/11—Jan. 6 may go down in history as the point of no return.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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