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Feature 07.01.2021 5 minutes

Minority Report

Minority Report

The Biden Administration’s domestic terrorism strategy threatens to criminalize conservative speech and thought.

On his first day in office, President Biden initiated an unprecedented review of U.S. government efforts to counter domestic terrorism. This review has now resulted in the first-ever national strategy to combat domestic terrorism.

The National Security Council document, entitled the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, notes that “domestic terrorism can take many forms, inspired by a wide range of violent ideologies.” It emphasizes that “the definition of domestic terrorism in our law makes no distinction based on political views—left, right, or center—and neither should we.” And the document thus pledges “to confront domestic terrorism regardless of the particular ideology that motivates individuals to violence.”

Despite these assurances, nobody on the political Right genuinely believes that the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism will be implemented in an “ideologically neutral manner” as the Biden administration promises.

When it comes to political neutrality, the National Strategy has already gotten off to an inauspicious start. As everyone knows, the immediate impetus for the counterterrorism review was the January 6 unrest at the Capitol. Democrats have been smart to draw maximum attention to this tragic day and interpret it through the prism of “terrorism,” because we know from the political science literature on terrorism that terrorist activity tends to backfire politically on the perpetrators by eroding popular support and strengthening the executive to crush dissent.

To help depict the events of January 6 as terrorism, Democrats and their anti-Trump media allies have repeatedly promoted the misimpression that the perpetrators killed somebody. The New York Times reported on January 8 that Capitol officer Brian Sicknick died in the melee from getting “struck with a fire extinguisher.” This account of his death was then cited in House Democrats’ February trial memorandum to impeach former President Trump.

Throughout the impeachment, Trump’s political enemies—from CNN to MSNBC, to the Lincoln Project, to Nancy Pelosi—emphasized that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was a terrorist incident that killed Officer Sicknick. Even after the official medical examiner concluded in April that Sicknick died from natural causes, President Biden, MSNBC, and CNN have continued to promote the politically self-serving fiction that he was killed in a terrorist attack. Side with the medical examiner and you are branded a January 6 “truther.” By mischaracterizing Sicknick’s cause of death as terrorism in defiance of the scientific assessment, Democrats have not only cynically weakened right-wing groups, but laid the foundation for rooting out Trump supporters in the name of counterterrorism.

The policy document itself belies the expressed goal of ideological neutrality. The preface lists only examples of attacks by far Right perpetrators—specifically, the ones in Charleston, Pittsburgh, and El Paso. Ironically, there is no mention anywhere in the document of the April 2 Capitol attack—which did in fact kill an officer—presumably because the perpetrator was a follower of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. While whitewashing such recent terrorist attacks from the Left, the counterterrorism document explicitly identifies “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) and militia violent extremists…as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats.”

This notion that the far Right poses the greatest domestic terrorist threat accords with other recent assessments by the intelligence community. But the domestic strategy is not actually limited to counterterrorism. In Pillar Two of the document, the authors acknowledge that the goal is to “prevent individuals from ever reaching the point of committing terrorist violence.” The document elaborates: “While those who break the law in furtherance of domestic terrorism must face investigation and prosecution for their crimes, it is equally important that the Federal Government engage in efforts to prevent individuals from being drawn into the grip of domestic terrorism in the first instance.”

As others have noted, the new plan is for the government, along with private industry especially in the communications sector, to confront the root causes of politically motivated violence and “focus on behavioral indicators toward radicalization” for “inoculating the public against extremism” and “preventing radicalization in the first place.”

In other words, pre-terrorists—not just terrorists—are the target of this counterterrorism strategy. How, exactly, they will be identified and treated is unaddressed. But the implication is that some individuals, especially on the political Right, will draw disproportionate government scrutiny and possibly be targeted even in cases where they do not use violence or otherwise break the law. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, this broad conceptualization of the domestic threat will likely be “controversial” because of the danger to civil liberties, particularly on the political Right.

The nation’s domestic strategy appears to recognize the enemy as extremists more broadly and not just those engaged in terrorism or other unlawful acts. But when asked to specify how it will interpret “extremism,” the government has demurred. If the government fails to restrict its actions to countering violent offenders, the post-January 6 strategy will feed the impression that the Biden administration is simply using counterterrorism as a political cudgel. And ironically, such illiberalism is associated with more—not less—terrorism.

Suggested reading from the editors
The War Comes Home

The War Comes Home

The Biden Administration’s Domestic Terrorism Strategy is practically designed for overreach.

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