By Heidi Beirich
Taking the stage on January 20 for his inaugural speech in front of the American Capitol that had just been stormed by hundreds of right-wing extremists, President Joe Biden specifically called out the problem of white supremacy and the need to confront it. He denounced the “racism, nativism, fear, demonization” that propelled the assault and said it was now time to confront “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism.”
Days later, it was announced that the director of national intelligence would work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to produce a comprehensive threat assessment of these movements. The White House also plans to strengthen the National Security Council’s (NSC) ability to counter domestic extremism by improving the flow of information among government agencies, supporting programs to prevent radicalization and looking at ways to disrupt domestic extremist networks.
These are all necessary steps and a very important start, especially given the prior administration’s encouragement of these dangerous groups and ideas. But to confront the challenge of white supremacy and other forms of extremism in the U.S. there are several issues that need to be confronted simultaneously.
As white supremacist extremism is now an international movement propelled by networks that transcend borders, the U.S. needs to work with allies affected by this menace. There is no other way to effectively counter a threat that knows no national borders. As a Brookings Institute report recently said, “By working with allies around the world, the United States can prevent the groups and cells from helping each other, as it does already with jihadi organizations. In addition, a global effort can reveal otherwise unknown individuals who have ties to extremists back at home.”
Of great importance is the need to confront extremism in the Armed Forces and in law enforcement. Nearly one-fifth of those arrested so far in the Capitol insurgency were either veterans or active-duty troops. Police from several jurisdictions were also found among the rioters. Several major terrorist plots in recent years involving dangerous neo-Nazi organizations including the Atomwaffen Division (atomic weapons in German) and The Base (the English translation for Al Qaeda) have involved arrests of active duty troops and veterans. Given the training they have had in weapons and bombs, the danger is obvious. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who committed the largest domestic terrorist attack before 9/11, had been a veteran steeped in white supremacist and militia ideas.
Hate crimes are another area needing attention. In the U.S., less than five percent of hate crimes are actually documented according to the Department of Justice. The FBI, which collects the data, annually reports around 6,000 cases, but the DOJ says the actual number is more like 250,000 hate crimes. Without accurate data, we are unable to actually understand and address this social problem, which is driven by hatred of various kinds.
Another major problem in growing extremism is the role of the social media companies. It’s clear that dangerous ideas like the increasingly antisemitic QAnon conspiracy and racist propaganda such as the “Great Replacement,” which argues that white people are being displaced by people of color in their home countries, could never have spread without the online space. It is time for the U.S. government to investigate curbing the role of technology companies in proliferating hatred and conspiracies.
It is also important for the government to invest in communities most impacted by hate. For too long, resources for issues like hate crimes have not found their way into marginalized communities. By building their resilience, we can also help to fight white supremacy and extremism.
For more on GPAHE’s suggested policies to curb white supremacy and extremism, see our policy brief.
Dr Heidi Beirich is a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) which has a mission to strengthen and educate a diverse global community committed to exposing and countering racism, bigotry and prejudice; and to promote the human rights values that support flourishing, inclusive societies and democracies.
Photo by Brett Davis