Confronting the "Foul Spirit" of Extremists

While the global "War on Terror" spent trillions, domestic terrorism expanded and is putting democracy in danger

I don’t make a habit of quoting with praise the words of George W. Bush. But his comments in Shanksville, PA, on Saturday were unavoidable for their clarity and his willingness to connect the extremism that led to the destruction and murder 20 years ago to the destruction and murder on January 6 this year.

“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

In those early weeks after 9/11, Bush attempted to distinguish the terrorists from the larger Muslim community. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends,” he said in a speech to Congress. “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”

But the ramping up of the all-government, multi-trillion-dollar “War on Terror” that led to two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the estimated deaths of well over a million people (according to Physicians for Social Responsibility) also created a rising climate of fear and a surge in Muslim-targeted hate crimes in the US. That vengeance-filled Islamophobia spurred hate crimes against Sikhs (presumed to be Muslim), along with other people of color, and hostility toward candidate and then-President Barack Obama that he was a “secret Muslim.”

Is it any wonder that, starting in 2011, birther Donald Trump began questioning where President Obama was really born—a drumbeat he continued year after year, including when he told Bill O’Reilly that his birth certificate could reveal that he is Muslim? Of course, he went further in the realm of fantasy when he ridiculously told a rally crowd in August 2016 that President Obama was the founder of ISIS. The cunning demagogue knew how to exploit the hatred, fear and paranoia that had taken root in the GOP base, fueled by a War on Terror. It’s no surprise that, in the midst of Trump’s bans targeting people from majority-Muslim countries, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 91 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

While the overall costs of the War on Terror are estimated by Brown University scholars to ultimately reach $8 trillion—including related costs for the Defense Department, State Department, Department of Homeland Security and continuing veterans’ care—this massive expenditure somehow failed to adequately cover the rise in domestic terrorism, particularly of the violent white supremacist variety.

Once Trump took the White House, the prospects for rooting out and tamping down that domestic terrorism faded. I won’t detail here all the ways he fueled and unleashed the white supremacist crowd—gave them license to kill—except to note a whistleblower report. Brian Murphy, the former deputy head of the intelligence division of Homeland Security, said he was pressured to minimize the threat of white supremacy in the US. What did get the department’s attention, intended to appeal to the wishes of Trump? Antifa and left-wing groups and protection of statues and other monuments from what was described as “lawlessness that is sweeping the nation.”

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the January 6 attack on the Capitol matches the world-altering scale of 9/11 and the overwhelming sense of immediate danger that the shocking collapse of the Twin Towers provoked. But just as 9/11 revealed gaps in national security and awakened many Americans to the genuine dangers of global terrorism, 1/6 must be a pivotal moment in the country’s commitment to confront the rise of white supremacist-fueled domestic terrorism and its ongoing danger.

The reality of veterans and other federal employees participating in the January insurrection has motivated the Biden administration to take action against extremism in the military and Homeland Security. That includes assessing the ranks of the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard. “We recognize that domestic violent extremism and the ideology, the extremist ideologies that spew it, are prevalent,” said Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Homeland Security secretary.

It’s encouraging that domestic terrorism from white supremacists and militia groups has risen high on the Biden agenda, including increasing funding to ward off attacks, employ tactics previously applied to foreign terrorist groups and providing public warnings. Yet the continuing threat is painfully visible in the eight months since 1/6: We are still watching elected officials who incited violence and possibly assisted the attack deny the severity of that day and continue to encourage violent extremists. This should be shocking across the political spectrum.

We have reached a dangerously dispiriting period when we must hope—and apply pressure—that Attorney General Merrick Garland and President Biden will demonstrate their duty by ensuring that the inciters, organizers and funders of January 6 will be held accountable. Anything less amounts to standing back and standing by until the next attack.

As George Bush said at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania on Saturday, the spot where heroic Americans who defended their country lost their lives, “the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within.” Confronting this growing danger, both the violent perpetrators and the politicians who back them, may determine the fate of our democracy.

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