Almost 18 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, only a fool would dismiss the ongoing threat posed by Islamic terrorists burning with hatred of America. But in the years since that terrible day, events have made it clear that a different brand of terrorism has become a more immediate part of our lives. And while Islamic terrorism and those supporting it remain a primary focus of our national security apparatus, we have been slow to acknowledge the reality and scope of the terrorism driven by closer-to-home hatreds.
We are talking, of course, about the incitement and violence perpetrated by a growing white supremacist underground and its allies among neo-Nazis, extreme xenophobes and those targeting the LGBTQ community.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists have committed at least 73 murders just since the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Parkland, Pittsburgh, El Paso — “In each of these cities, white supremacist murderers acted on the threat embodied in the chant made famous in Charlottesville: ‘Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!’” the ADL reports.
Media reports have focused mostly on mass killings targeting immigrants — legal and undocumented — but it’s clear that rank anti-Semitism is always an ingredient in the toxic mix, as the scarred, traumatized Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh can attest.
There are no simple solutions. The economic dislocations of recent decades, the rise of the internet as a powerful organizing mechanism for far-flung extremists, and politicians who recklessly seek to exploit simmering resentments for political gain are among the factors feeding the rise of this homegrown terror.
But there are some steps that can and should be taken immediately.
Government agencies that have focused heavily on the threat of Islamic terror since 2001 — with some admirable successes — must devote equal resources to identifying and monitoring this threat. Free speech remains a critical pillar of American democracy, but groups using hate speech to incite violence must be closely watched, and appropriate steps taken when their obscene rhetoric seeks to incite violence.
Despite the well-documented surge of violent white extremism, government agencies mostly still seem to operate on the assumption that the only terror threat emanates from abroad. We maintain that myopia at our own peril, and especially at the peril of the most vulnerable groups — including Jews.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, got it just right when he said that “white supremacy is a national security threat that demands a comprehensive and intense response that rivals the approach applied to countering other radical forms of violent extremism. Just as the federal government mobilized to combat the threat posed by terrorist groups such as ISIS, we need to see that same energy applied to combating white supremacy, and we need to see it now.”
The internet, with its ability to slap a facade of legitimacy on the craziest conspiracy theories, has played an obvious role in the hate upsurge. The recent shutdown of the hate site 8chan was a step in the right direction, but identifying and shutting down hate sites is extraordinarily difficult on the unfiltered and probably unfilterable internet (see page 1 story on 8chan). Still, service providers and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter must do more — much more — to ensure that this new mode of communication and interaction, so important in our modern world, is not misused to incite violence.
Finally, politicians from every point on the political spectrum must cease all efforts to appeal to a constituency of haters. Saying that there are “very fine people” among neo-Nazis sends a clear signal that such abhorrent views have a legitimate place in the cosmos of American politics. They don’t, and our leaders must be held accountable for every wink and nod they give to the growing army of haters.
And we need to be very clear in calling this spreading stain on our democracy what it is: terrorism.