In the aftermath of last weekend’s massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, a number of policy proposals burst forth, including many ideas familiar from earlier mass shootings, like increased background checks and closing existing loopholes.
But some proposed policies were new, suggesting this could be watershed moment for meaningful action. In addition to gun-safety laws, experts tell ThinkProgress this is a moment to renew focus on a comprehensive response to white nationalist and far-right terror.
As the Washington Post reported, some policy recommendations being advanced center on “a realignment of national security priorities as violence on the far right escalates.” Others echo the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including increased monitoring of propaganda networks.
“We call on our government to make addressing this form of terrorism as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11, and to provide the type of leadership and strategic guidance on this issue promised in the counter-terrorism strategy released almost a year ago,” read a statement from a number of former National Security Council officers. “This also means providing a significant infusion of resources to support federal, state, and local programs aimed at preventing extremism and targeted violence of any kind, motivated by any ideology or directed at any American community.”
Taking domestic terrorism as seriously as int'l terrorism is overdue.
Read this statement from 6 Bush/Obama/Trump NSC Senior Directors for Counterterrorism: "We simply cannot wait any longer."
— Joshua A. Geltzer (@jgeltzer) August 4, 2019
Not everyone is necessarily on board with mirroring the post-9/11 approach the U.S. pursued, however. For those who have been tracking the far-right for years — and tried to call attention to the far-right’s spiraling threat — there are quicker, simpler fixes than can be addressed before any major pieces of legislation or new strategy come to the fore.
For Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, the first legislative response should focus primarily on data about how many far-right threats exist and what the threats actually comprise.
The United States needs to “attempt to get that data before anybody, from our perspective, flies off the cuff, and all of a sudden declares things domestic terrorist organizations,” Beirich told ThinkProgress. “We don’t want to go back to what happened after 9/11 with the Muslim community. And the U.S. government has a terrible history of using spying against political opponents.”
Two of the easiest means of data collection, Beirich added, are contained in a pair of bills currently circulating around Congress. One, the Domestic Terrorism Documentation and Analysis of Threats in America (DATA) Act, was introduced last summer by House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS). The DATA Act would require a number of federal agencies — including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Justice Department — to issue a formal report on domestic terrorism, including information on prosecutions, convictions, and investigations. The bill would also establish a DHS university-based research center to both study domestic terrorism and publish a database related to domestic terrorist incidents.
“There’s an urgent need for robust, centralized, and transparent federal data to inform counterterrorism policymaking – and Americans deserve to know exactly how their government is allocating resources to understanding and confronting the scourge of domestic terrorism,” Thompson said when announcing his bill, noting the recent spike in deaths attributed to domestic terrorists.
Likewise, Beirich noted, Congress should pass the Stop Harmful and Abusive Telecommunications Expression Act (Stop HATE Act), a complementary piece of legislation that would identify how social media and online forums have accelerate the spread of hate speech and white supremacist ideology. With bills in both the House and Senate, the legislation took on a renewed salience in the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, after the alleged gunman posted his manifesto to 8chan, one of the most notoriously extremist sites.
A number of 2020 presidential candidates co-sponsored the Senate legislation, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill mirrors other efforts at data collection, which had previously stalled out due to lack of Republican support.
Of course, data collection is only one step, albeit one of monumental importance. While federal and state authorities continue to compile data to better allocate resources moving forward, the United States should pursue a number of other relatively easy policy shifts.
For instance, the Trump Administration should reverse its decision to end an Obama-era program dedicated to countering domestic terror. As ThinkProgress previous reported, the Trump Administration revealed last year that it would not renew the Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program. A DHS initiative launched in 2016, the federal grant program was dedicated solely to combating far-right extremist groups and ideologies — that is, until the White House decided in 2018 it wasn’t worth funding.
There are symbolic steps Congress can take to illustrate its opposition to the kind of far-right ideologies the president continues to peddle. Congress can finally end its century-long struggle to enact anti-lynching legislation. While lynchings haven’t occurred in the United States in decades, Congress has failed time and again to pass legislation making lynching a federal crime.
Thankfully, there has been recent momentum on that front. Earlier this year, the Senate passed bipartisan anti-lynching legislation sponsored by a number of 2020 candidates, including Harris. The House version of the bill has also been moving forward, and just last week was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. While the bill wouldn’t have necessarily deterred the type of white supremacist massacre that took place in El Paso, it would nevertheless present a strong signal that the federal government remains opposes violent white nationalist rhetoric.
Whether any of this legislation is passed, of course, remains to be seen. But as Beirich noted, and as the responses have already illustrated, the recent mass shootings feel qualitatively different from previous ones, and more like a “sea-change” in terms of how the Washington might finally respond to the threat of far-right terrorism.
“You just can’t act like this isn’t a problem anymore,” she said. “That’s what I see as different.”