In the months and years after the trauma of 9/11, a clear image of who a probable terrorist was hardened in the minds of many Americans.
They weren’t from here, coming from lands few of us have ever visited. They worshiped differently than most of us, spoke different languages, and were so consumed by their own maximalist ideology they would be willing to extinguish their own lives in order to strike a blow against their perceived enemies.
What has become painfully clear in recent months, however, is that the terrorist we should most fear is not the jihadist from thousands of miles away, but the white supremacist who lives down the road. And yet the United States is not doing enough to combat the threat.
The shooting at a synagogue in the San Diego area last weekend that left one congregant dead and three others injured was the latest in a series of atrocities perpetrated by Americans who hate a large share of their fellow countrymen. Between 2009 and 2018, almost 75 percent of all extremist killings carried out in the United States were the handiwork of white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In 2017, the number of arrests for domestic terrorist plots exceeded the number of those arrested for involvement in international plots by almost one-third. Yet the Trump administration has slashed funding for the office in the Department of Homeland Security that combats homegrown extremism, and only a fraction of the FBI investigations currently active deal with domestic terrorism.
President Trump has hardly encouraged a more vigorous approach, dismissing white nationalist terrorists both here and abroad as “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” Of course, the president’s own rhetoric has done little to quiet the furies of these extremists.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre in Squirrel Hill, national security analysts Peter Bergen and David Sterman observed that “Jihadist organizations are no longer the main terrorist threat facing the country. Since 9/11, no foreign terrorist group has successfully conducted a deadly attack in the United States. The main terrorist problem in the United States today is one of individuals – usually with ready access to guns – radicalized by a diverse array of ideologies absorbed from the Internet.”
Domestic terrorism needs to be taken as seriously as international terrorism, that much is clear. To that end, being involved in a domestic terror plot needs to be considered a federal crime in and of itself. Right now it is not; suspects are frequently charged with drugs or weapons charges, but not for terrorism. Getting assault weapons out of the hands of the demented and unhinged would also help curtail the bloodshed. And our leaders, including President Trump, should more forcefully condemn white supremacist violence. They need to emphasize this is a heterogeneous nation, and its diversity is one of its primary strengths.
Terrorism is terrorism, plain and simple. No matter who the perpetrator is.