WASHINGTON — “The only good Muslim is a dead one.” Rep Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., teared up as she read the chilling words from hate mail she had recently received.
It was a poignant, disturbing moment from a House Oversight hearing on white nationalism. Tlaib wiped the tears away as she read the vitriolic words, leading Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., seated next to Tlaib, to put a consoling hand on her shoulder. Meanwhile, on the dais behind them, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, fiddled with a smartphone plug.
Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. are the first Muslim women in Congress. Both have been the targets of political attacks, but also of threats on their lives. A man in New York was arrested in April for threatening to kill Omar.
“How is that not enough to fall under domestic terrorism?” Tlaib wondered aloud, speaking of the letter she had received.
That was the central question of the hearing, the second conducted on white nationalism by the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee. It is a question without an easy answer, because while U.S. law does define domestic terrorism, there is no specific criminal charge for it. That means white nationalists can be prosecuted on charges related to weapons, hate crimes and other laws, but they are not prosecuted or punished the same way as terrorists affiliated with a foreign group like the Islamic State would likely be.
Similarly, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center is not allowed to track purely domestic terrorists, including white nationalists.
The hearing comes at a time when white nationalism poses an increasing threat to national security. In his opening statement, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and the subcommittee’s chairman cited Anti-Defamation League findings that between 2009 and 2018, far-right extremists were responsible for 73 percent of murders, while Islamic terrorists were behind 23 percent of murders. But the FBI’s commitment of manpower was “almost exactly backwards from what the problem would suggest,” reflecting the intense need to stop and destroy al-Qaida after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Raskin also said that while law enforcement has managed to stop about three-fourths of all attacks by Islamic radicals since 2001, only about one-fourth of attacks by far-right extremists had been stopped during that same time period, citing the findings of a University of Maryland terrorism center. “How many far-right extremist attacks could have been prevented if we had taken that threat as seriously as we had taken the threat of Islamist fanatical extremism?” Raskin said, adding that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, every one of the 50 murders committed by a domestic extremist in 2018 was tied to a far-right cause. Most, he said, were explicitly committed in the name of white supremacy.
The seeming gap in the current law was highlighted in the recent case of Christopher Hasson, a Maryland man who allegedly intended to kill Democratic lawmakers and members of the media in Washington. Arrested on drug and gun charges, he was ordered released on bail in April, a decision that was met with widespread outrage.
There was plenty of both emotions in the hearing room on Tuesday afternoon, in part because a number of critics argue federal law regarding domestic terrorism is woefully inadequate to deal with the new varieties of old hatreds that have sprouted in the digital age.
Sometimes, lawmakers simply struggled to understand why the law was so incomplete, as when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., asked the hearing’s key witness, Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, “Is the white supremacy issue not a global issue?”
She seemed to be making the point that white nationalists could potentially have ties to international organizations just like terrorists who have pledged their allegiance to ISIS.
McGarrity acknowledged that white supremacy had, indeed, gone global. Only the law had not kept up. “The United States Congress doesn’t have a statute for us to use domestic terrorism like we do on foreign terrorists organizations,” he explained.
Later, in response to another lawmaker, he seemed to express support for possible new laws for domestic terrorism. “I want every tool in the toolbox — and I want options,” McGarrity said.
He also faced tough questioning from Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who wanted to know about the alleged monitoring of “Black Identity Extremists,” a heavily criticized designation the FBI is alleged to have created to cover disparate individuals and groups whose only clear link is race.
McGarrity professed confusion on this point. “There’s no surveillance on that activity,” he said, speaking of social justice groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in response to police killings of unarmed black men. “I don’t know where that information is coming from.”
Tlaib’s emotional testimony came shortly after that exchange. Tlaib said she wanted to ensure the laws were sufficient to protect potential victims of white nationalists. “I’m a mother,” she said. “I want to go home to my two boys.”
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