WASHINGTON — Oak Creek. Charleston. Pittsburgh. Charlottesville. Poway. And now, El Paso.
That’s just to begin the list of places victimized by violence fueled by racism, bigotry, homophobia, or white supremacy — a list that grows longer with no end in sight. Hate crimes climbed by 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI. The bureau’s director, Christopher Wray, told lawmakers last month that most of the domestic terrorism cases involving race were “motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
“Every marginalized community is under attack right now,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tells Rolling Stone. “On the spectrum of far-right extremism, there are different variants, but the toxic ideology that is driving so much of this violence, animating so much of this intolerance, is white supremacy.” Referring to the numerous incidents of hate-fueled violence across the country, Greenblatt says: “These aren’t outliers on a scatter plot; these are data points on a trend line.”
What can be done to stem the rise of white-nationalist violence?
Stamping out white supremacy will of course require more than new laws and better enforcement. This is a cultural and moral crisis that resides in the nation’s bones. But our inability to stop all of this violence is no reason to not take action to stop some of it.
And as it turns out, there are plenty of options at the ready on Capitol Hill and in the halls of the Trump administration. Below, a look at four ways lawmakers, government officials, and President Trump could potentially prevent the next act of white-nationalist terrorism.
Make White-Nationalist Violence an Act of Terrorism
Right now, there is no law that makes an act of domestic terrorism motivated by hatred — including white nationalism or white supremacy — a federal crime. The domestic terrorist, a white man, who murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was indicted on 44 counts that included obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and the use and discharge of a firearm to commit murder. The terrorist, another white man, who killed nine people at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was the first person sentenced to death after being charged under a federal hate-crimes law. But neither of them was explicitly charged with domestic terrorism — because no such law exists.
The Patriot Act of 2001 gave the federal government broad powers — too broad, in the eyes of many — to surveil would-be foreign terrorists and prevent them from attacking the U.S. Such a law aimed at potential domestic terrorists could give law enforcement more power to charge people who, say, stockpile huge amounts of weapons in anticipation of an act of violence or those who carry out acts of terrorism that don’t result in physical violence. “It’s a big blank spot,” Mary McCord, a former national security prosecutor, told the New York Times.
Earlier this year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a leading Democrat, introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. “For too long, we have failed to take action to combat the deadly threat in our own backyard,” Durbin said in a statement. “While federal law enforcement agencies recognize that white supremacist extremism is on the rise, our legislation would require them to take the concrete steps needed to address it.”
Proponents of such a law say that, as domestic terrorism increases, the law should recognize it precisely for what it is and give it equal weight to foreign terrorism. Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, writes that the “scarlet letter” of being labeled a domestic terrorist would increase awareness of such crimes. A domestic-terrorism law could also deter future acts of terrorism through longer prison sentences and provide greater resources dedicated to the problem.
But a domestic terrorism law could also raise serious concerns about the constitutional rights of Americans. The ACLU urged members of Congress to oppose Durbin’s bill, citing among other things the government’s surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement and warning that Durbin’s bill could lead to far more of the same in the future. “Enacting ‘domestic terrorism’ legislation would not only entrench a system that lacks meaningful oversight, transparency, and legitimate standards, but also codifies a framework that is used to target and discriminate against the very communities Congress hopes to protect,” the letter says.
Bring Back the Department of Homeland Security’s Extremism and Radicalization Team
In 2009, Daryl Johnson, an analyst in the Department of Homeland Security, published a report that warned lawmakers about the rise of right-wing extremism and white-nationalist hate groups in the wake of the global financial crisis and Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Intended only for law-enforcement officials, Johnson’s report was leaked to the media, and conservatives went ballistic, furious that a government agency dared mention “right-wing extremism” and the recruitment of veterans by extremist groups. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for some of the report’s conclusions, and Johnson’s unit was later disbanded.
That unit, the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, has never been reinstituted. (Johnson himself left the department in 2010 and started a private intelligence firm.) In 2015, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson whether DHS would bring back the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, but Johnson refused to directly answer the question. (Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.) That same year, 20 House Democrats called on President Obama and then-DHS Secretary Johnson to reopen the Extremism and Radicalization Branch and to issue an updated version of Daryl Johnson’s 2009 report. “Our government needs to do more to address the threat of right-wing extremism,” they wrote. “Countering violent extremism requires a comprehensive strategy that begins with a commitment to address hate crime in all its forms.”
Cohen reiterated his call to revive the Extremism and Radicalization Branch in a 2017 letter to Trump administration officials. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reported in 2018 that DHS had disbanded a domestic terrorism intelligence unit and reassigned the unit’s employees; an anonymous DHS official told the Beast that the agency’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis had “significantly reduced” the amount of work it produced on homegrown violent extremism and domestic terrorism. (DHS disputed this, saying its focus on domestic terrorism was “far more effective now” and “continues 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.”)
Daryl Johnson tells Rolling Stone that reinstituting his former team is one step, but it needs to be part of a larger shift inside DHS and the FBI to devote as many resources toward domestic threats as there are toward foreign terrorism. “If the FBI would just take the same amount of vigor it’s applied toward rooting out radical Islam, they could crank out just as many white-nationalist cases,” Johnson says. “But it’s just a lack of willpower.”
Get Serious About Collecting Hate-Crimes Data
Statistics about hate crimes are notoriously unreliable. Some victims choose not to report hate crimes to the police. Law enforcement agencies aren’t trained in the latest crime-reporting technologies and aren’t always required to submit data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, the basis for the FBI’s annual hate-crime report. As a result, hate crimes are woefully underreported, experts say. In 2016, for instance, almost 90 percent of the 15,254 agencies that participated in reporting hate crimes to the FBI reported zero for the entire year.
There are several bills under consideration in Congress that would try to fix these problems. The Domestic Terrorism DATA Act, introduced by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), would require the FBI, DHS, and DOJ to publish an audited, unclassified joint report each year outlining the major domestic terrorism threats and the government’s efforts to track and combat them; it would also force DHS to ramp up its study of domestic terrorism and international organizations connected to white supremacists and other domestic terrorists. “Without quantifying the problem we can’t develop strategies to solve for it,” says Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL.
The NO HATE Act, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would offer grants to state and local law enforcement outfits to better collect hate crimes data, including how to use the most up-to-date crime reporting system, known as NIBRS. It would create confidential hotlines for victims and witnesses of hate crimes. And it would give judges the ability — but not require — to order community service for perpetrators in a community affected by the crime.
“That kind of community service can almost be more valuable than incarceration,” Blumenthal tells Rolling Stone. “They would work alongside of the people that they’ve professed to hate based on total ignorance and maybe learn something about them.”
Get Guns Out of the Hands of Violent White Nationalists
Under federal law, a person guilty of a misdemeanor for domestic violence can’t buy a gun. That’s not the case for a hate-crime misdemeanor in many states.
The Disarm Hate Act, introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), would change that, closing what Cicilline calls the “Hate Crime Loophole.” “It grew out of a recognition that there’s pretty compelling evidence that individuals convicted of hate crimes that start off less serious are a precursor to more serious violence based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or place of origin,” he tells Rolling Stone. “This [law] would say anyone convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime would be barred from purchasing a firearm because the evidence (pointing to future violence) is so compelling.”
Cicilline says Congress should pass two more bills that could prevent guns from ending up in the hands of violent white nationalists. In some cases, gun sellers who run a criminal background check on a potential customer don’t hear back before the three-day window to complete the sale ends. A bill called the Unlawful Gun Buyer Alert Act would require gun sellers to report to the FBI — even after the three-day window — if a gun was sold to someone who shouldn’t have been allowed to purchase it in the first place.
A third bill would create a reporting system for mental-health professionals to alert law enforcement agencies about a dangerous individual in possession of a gun. “Right now, if you go to a counselor and say, ‘I’m going to get a gun today and kill everyone at work,’ there’s really no mechanism to report that,” Cicilline says.
Of course, no one bill or policy tweak will eradicate white nationalism and the violence that comes with it. The options described above are just a sampling. But the point is this: There are real, meaningful steps Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the Trump administration, can take right now to meet this crisis. The ideas are there. What’s needed is the will.