The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a panel Monday night about the January attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the rise of domestic violence and extremism in the United States.
Javed Ali, Towsley Foundation policymaker in residence and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council,, moderated a discussion with panelists Janet Reitman, a journalist for New York Times Magazine, and Heidi Beirich, co-founder, executive vice president, and chief strategy officer of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. The panelists, all experts on national security, discussed the various factors that led to the insurrection and the flaws in policymaking that were revealed afterward.
Beirich acknowledged how the federal government has a history of not being very responsive when faced with threats of domestic extremism, offering examples like the 2009 attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum; the 2009 killing of abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita, KS; and the 2019 El Paso Walmart attack.
Beirich said the Jan. 6 violence was unusual for bringing together different factions of the far-right, namely militia groups, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, and extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump.
“What I would argue is driving (domestic terrorism) and why we’re going to still see some several years probably of attacks like Pittsburgh and El Paso is (the) changing demographics in the United States,” Beirich said. “The fact (is) that the white supremacist movement has come to an ideological alignment that white people are being genocided and something has to be done to stop this process, (though) the answers for some groups are different than others. But they almost all involve violence to secure white hegemony … This isn’t just an American problem. This is a problem in lots and lots of countries.”
Beirich also talked about the massive responses the government and media had towards Waco and Ruby Ridge, two incidents in the early 1990s where the federal government staged sieges against a cult and a far-right activist, respectively. Beirich said the events at Waco were aired on CNN, drawing public attention to sensational news.
Reitman said her experience with news coverage on warfare and terrorism is similar to what occurred during the U.S. Capitol riots.
“I’m uncomfortable at this point, after a 20-year War On Terror, with the word terrorism,” Reitman said. “With political violence or politically-motivated violence… it meets the definition of domestic terrorism. (But) I worry about the push towards domestic terrorism legislation and a new war on domestic terrorism that I think could be devastating on the civil liberties perspective.”
Regarding the definition of terrorism, Reitman said she does not consider everybody who attacked the Capitol, was a part of the mob or was arrested as a terrorist.
“I think there were some that definitely are very violent people that need to be prosecuted under those kinds of laws, but I think there were a number of people that got swept in,” Reitman said. “There are so many of these cases, (and) everybody who went in there deserves some form of punishment, but I don’t think every single one of them has to be considered a terrorist.”
Ali then spoke about what the Biden administration is going to do differently from the Trump administration to combat domestic terrorism.
“So President Biden … has been very vocal in this combination of both domestic violent extremism — one of the things he said when he started his campaign in 2018 was because of the events in Charlottesville the previous year,” Ali said. “So we’ve seen that as a very personal issue to him. And even since becoming president, he’s vowed to do more.”
After Ali asked what practical solution the administration can deliver in the next few years, Beirich said she finds it a huge relief that the U.S. now has a president willing to condemn white supremacy and that she would like to see the federal government look more into extremists in police forces and in the military. She said the military sets a stage for extremism, recalling how many of the extremists who stormed the Capitol were veterans and active-duty personnel who have been arrested in recent years for attempting terrorist attacks.
“That’s the nexus we have to fix … Timothy McVeigh is just a reminder,” Beirich said. “He was a veteran. That was what allowed him to build the bomb that he built, and we don’t need to put those kinds of skills in the hands of people who want to harm our fellow citizens.”
Reitman continued, noting that as a journalist she has witnessed how law enforcement defines terrorism by falsely comparing Black Lives Matter protests to right-wing extremism. She also said law enforcement has historically targeted left-wing groups, Black people, and civil rights groups.
“I think there really needs to be both an examination of law enforcement, who’s in law enforcement, and sadly … almost like ‘What is the ideology of some of these people?’” Reitman said.
Beirich discussed the role social media plays on user consumption of extremist information, saying current policies that are meant to deal with extremism are ineffective. She described how algorithms for social media platforms are designed to personalize the user experience, which can cause a lot of consumption of extremist posts.
Beirich said corporations who have the resources to help fight extremism are reluctant because of monetary incentives but stated that governments may eventually force them to take action. She cited Germany as an example of implementing such measures, such as tightening gun laws and requiring hate speech on social media to be reported.
“It’s a matter of will, it’s a matter of resources, it’s a matter of application,” Beirich said.
Reitman said the country needs to have a conversation on how anger and hate were not created by the Trump era, but instead were manipulated and amplified. She said she is concerned with the ever-growing xenophobia and Islamophobia reinforced by the Republican Party since Trump’s presidency.
“You know of people from very different political perspectives and social perspectives sitting down with one another … But at one point, not all of these people were insane people that believed … a complete conspiracy theory,” Reitman said. “I think we need to kind of understand what even left a person that vulnerable to go down that route.”
In a question to the panelists, Ali shifted the discussion toward the role of gun ownership.
“So I guess the question or the issue is, what, if anything might, change under this paradigm?” Ali said. “We’re now looking at some domestic security…on the issue of gun ownership.”
Reitman said access to guns increases the likelihood of hate crimes committed by white supremacists. Earlier this month, mass shootings in the Atlanta area at Asian-owned massage parlors and at a Boulder, CO grocery store reignited conversations about gun control and its intersections with combating white supremacy.
“There is a direct nexus between … gun ownership and these crimes,” Reitman said. “They’re swimming in the same pool, which is not to say that everybody who owns a gun or is pro-Second Amendment is a white supremacist or militia person.”
Beirich echoed Reitman’s point and said there are loopholes in the gun laws that make the public unsafe. She said that there should be the banning of ghost guns, which are firearms created by individuals without background checks, to ensure that guns are produced safely.
“Our country needs to have realistic and honest conversations with guns, which we have not been able to have for decades because of the power structures,” Beirich said. “It’s harming us all. We should be able to discuss these things in a civil manner (in order) to keep us all safe.”
Daily Staff Reporter Nirali Patel can be reached at email@example.com.