If the United States’ failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of imagination, missing the terrorist attack of Jan. 6, 2021, was a failure of perception — a persistent refusal at the highest levels of our government to acknowledge the empirical reality of the threat posed by right-wing terrorists.
Terrorism in the United States is overwhelmingly domestic and motivated by far-right ideologies, often racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.
In the past decade — indeed, in just about every year since 1990, other than 2001 — acts of right-wing domestic terrorism have been far more numerous and more lethal than acts of terrorism inspired or influenced by groups or movements overseas.
Far-right plots are also less likely to be disrupted by law enforcement; in the past decade about two-thirds of right-wing domestic terrorist plans have ended in “success,”, compared with 22% of terrorist plans hatched by international and affiliated actors.
Naming the enemy
So one of the most striking passages in President Joe Biden’s inaugural address was also one of the most straightforward: He named the enemy. “Political extremism, white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism,” he said, are dangers “that we must confront and we will defeat.”
It was a quick line delivered without much flourish, and it may sound overgenerous to congratulate Biden simply for speaking plainly. Yet it is a sign of how reluctant American officials have been to take on right-wing violence that his line made history.
He may be the first president to directly address white supremacy — a stain on the United States since before its founding — in an inaugural address.
Incantation alone cannot solve any problem, of course. But in the fight against far-right attacks, a president’s naming the menace might at least push the nation out of the ditch of inaction we’ve been stuck in for decades.
The primary reason that right-wing political violence persists in the United States is that it has rarely been prioritised by law enforcement, and the primary reason it has rarely been prioritised is political reluctance to do so.
In the past decade, the lethal attacks kept coming — at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; at a protest against a racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, — but under Donald Trump and even under Barack Obama, security officials continued to shower resources on addressing foreign threats rather than those closer to home.
The government’s lapse has now become obvious. In the months leading up to the Capitol riot, right-wing assailants hardly attempted to hide their intentions.
Many promised in public that they were planning to attack the government. They photographed themselves preparing to attack the government. They posted the routes they planned to take on their way to attack the government.
Some even practised attacking the federal government by attacking state governments. Undoing their plot was not a matter of finding a needle in a haystack; this was more like searching for a porcupine in a haystack, unmissable by anyone who cared to take minimal notice.
And yet the counterterrorism community still missed this huge attack — just as experts had long predicted would happen.
Republican politicians and luminaries of conservative media have also cultivated cosy ties with the far-right. Gavin McInnes, a founder of the Proud Boys, an extremist group whose members took part in the Capitol riot, has appeared dozens of times on Fox News.
Right-wing gun culture
A leader of Stop the Steal, one of the groups that organised the Capitol protest, has claimed that it coordinated with some Republican members of Congress — who now may face legal trouble. There is also right-wing gun culture, which has become intertwined with white supremacy.
A 2017 ad by the National Rifle Association divides the country into “ours” and “theirs,” leaving little question about the skin colour of “ours.”
But doubt about the threat posed by domestic terrorists extended beyond Trump and other conservatives.
So many Americans are unaware of the prevalence of far-right terrorist acts — which, in turn, is why there’s little political focus on it.
After acknowledging the problem, there are several practical steps the Biden administration might take to address right-wing violence. Many of these are obvious, following the lessons that counterterrorism officials have learnt investigating foreign terrorism.
Experts I talked to called for vigilant investigation and prosecution of the Capitol rioters; more resources for anti-radicalisation programs, which have proved effective in countering jihadi recruitment; a much greater federal emphasis on investigating hate crimes, acts of ideologically motivated violence that often fly under the radar of terrorism investigators; continued deplatforming of right-wing agitators from mainstream media; and greater cooperation between the United States and other countries in tracking and preventing attacks and recruitment that crosses borders, a growing problem in a digital world.
But the most important political move Biden can make is simply to keep shining a bright light on this scourge.
Trump often mocked Democrats for refusing to say the phrase “radical Islamic terror,” as if that were a spell that could make Daesh vanish. It wasn’t — but asking Republicans to repeatedly and specifically disavow radical white terrorism wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
— Farhad Manjoo is a noted American columnist and author
The New York Times