The criminal charges coming out of the Charlottesville, Va., last month, may perfectly describe the offenses – murder, discharging a firearm, malicious wounding – but the term terrorism is not mentioned.
The United States doesn’t have a domestic terrorism charge that can be lodged against individuals or organizations that operate wholly within the country. The FBI doesn’t have a unit specifically dedicated to tracking the violent extreme right.
In September, the Justice Department’s State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) program, which has trained more than 142,000 law enforcement officers in how to deal with domestic terrorists, will run out of funding. It received $2 million annually over the past three years, but the Trump administration requested no funding and Congress so far has agreed.
“A domestic terrorism statute, that’s something Congress could deal with when they come back next week,” said David Schanzer, a Duke University expert on domestic terrorism and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “These crimes do more in terms of the impact on the community, creation of fear, intimidation, than other crimes. That should be acknowledged.”
Congress spends a lot of time and effort debating strategies for combating terrorism, but those debates center mostly on international terrorism.
In the days after the Charlottesville attack, where white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters – one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed – the House Homeland Security Committee announced it was planning for “hearings on the threat of domestic terrorism.” No date has been set. A terror threat snapshot on the committee website focuses entirely on violent radical Islamist groups.
Trump has made a point of defining terrorism in terms of “radical Islamic terror.” He cut federal funding to the Chicago-based Life After Hate organization that the Obama administration had praised for its work in rehabilitating white Supremacists and neo-Nazis. The group is still operating without the federal grant, but members did not respond to requests for comment.
Law enforcement can use the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 in some domestic terror attacks. But the act, which covers the rights of victims to seek reparations from foreign nations and has a section on bomb materials, really only applies to the most deadly attacks. It leaves law enforcement with far fewer options than they have in domestic terrorism cases with international ties.
In Charlottesville, James Alex Fields Jr., is suspected of killing one person and wounding 19 others after allegedly driving his car into a swarm of counter-protesters. He has been charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding, aggravated malicious wounding and failing to stop during an accident resulting in a fatality.
Experts acknowledge that it is impossible to treat domestic terrorism exactly in the same way U.S. law enforcement treats international terrorism.
“If an American gives money to the Islamic State, that’s a crime,” Schanzer said. “If a violent neo-Nazi gives money to a violent neo-Nazi organization in the United States, that’s constitutionally protected free speech. That won’t change, and it shouldn’t.”
FBI spokesman Matthew Bertron said the FBI “investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security. Our focus is not on membership in particular groups or adherence to particular ideologies or beliefs but on criminal activity.”
The FBI does devote time and energy to investigating hate crimes. However, he said, it “cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of the First Amendment or other Constitutional rights, and we remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans.”
Mark Pitcavage, who studies the violent far right for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that while more attention isn’t the problem, appearances matter. He suggested that a new domestic terrorism law, while not increasing penalties, would make a substantial difference.
“Do we need it? No,” he said. “But it would be a good thing. It would allow us to keep better statistics, and tracks trends.”
Daryl Johnson, from 2004 to 2010 was the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security. He left his position as federal domestic anti-terrorism efforts targeting violent racists and nationalists diminished.
He said that the root of current problems goes back to September 11, 2001, when the national attention on terror attacks understandably focused on outside threats.
“Our counter-terror efforts are focused on Muslim extremists only,” Johnson said. “White guys doing the same acts get lesser sentences than Muslims, are prosecuted less frequently and are investigated far less. And yet the white supremacist attacks happen at equal or greater rate and threat to those of international terrorism.”
The problem is that since 2001, while the focus has been the international threat, the domestic body count of followers of the violent, radical right is higher than that of followers of a violent, radical version of Islam.
The statistics, which don’t include 2017, indicate that violent far right extremists killed 158 people in the United States between September 12, 2001 and the end of 2016, in 89 attacks. During the same time span, violent radical jihadis killed 119 people in 31 attacks in the United States.
Exclude the 9/11 and Oklahoma City bombing attacks, and between 1990 and 2015, in 46 attacks, violent far-right extremists killed 57 police officers in th United States. Violent radical jihadis launched five attacks and killed seven police officers, and also killed 18 military personnel in another three attacks.
William Braniff, executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), says that American security requires all terror threats be investigated.
“It’s as if you go to the doctor and he tells you you’re at risk for diabetes and heart disease,” he said. “You can’t deal with only one issue and feel good about your health. You have to address both.”
After all, both groups, “have the same behavior, and look to accomplish similar goals: to polarize society, to intimidate communities, to initiate violent acts.”
They use similar methods of attack, “a blending of high tech and low tech. They have encrypted sites to share the propaganda that is used as motivation for attacks, but the actual attack employs a vehicle, or a kitchen knife, very low entry level weapons.”