When President Joe Biden called “white supremacists … the most dangerous people in America … the greatest threat to terror in America, domestic terror” at a CNN town hall broadcast in Milwaukee this week, he was speaking directly to the fears that many Americans have about extremism. Those concerns have grown exponentially in the weeks since the U.S. Capitol riot shocked the country to its core as a mob—some of whose members displayed anti-Semitic symbols—rampaged through the seat of the federal government in an act of open contempt for democratic norms and decent behavior. That set off not only a fierce controversy about former President Donald Trump’s responsibility for the events of that day, but also a push for heightened government activity intended to suppress and prosecute extremists.
Biden was responding to a question about what his administration was going to do to address the problem of white supremacy and, pointedly, the attack on the Capitol, “and on democracy by your predecessor and his followers.” It came from Joel Berkowitz, a self-proclaimed Democrat and professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in the study of Yiddish theater. That someone who is so clearly identified with the Jewish community would be the one to pose that query was unsurprising. Since the murderous attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pa., and in Poway, Calif., in 2018 and 2019, respectively, there may be no demographic group more alarmed by violence from far-right extremists than American Jews.
Always sensitive to the potential for threats to communal security as well as anti-Semitism from its traditional bases on the far-right, many in the organized Jewish community—in particular, the Anti-Defamation League—spent much of the last four years seeking to connect the dots between extremism and Trump. That the evidence for such a connection was more a matter of innuendo than actual proof was beside the point. But the Capitol riot, for which Trump must bear some responsibility even if you don’t think he incited it according to the legal definition of the term, has enabled his many critics to treat the link between him and the far-right as self-evident.
So it was hardly surprising that the question Berkowitz asked was phrased in such a broad way so as to identify the problem as coming not just from a group of rioters or associated extremists, but from the 74 million people who voted for Trump.
Biden’s response was to assure his audience that the Department of Justice and, specifically the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, would focus on the threat of white supremacy. That Biden nominated Kristen Clarke as the person to lead that office—someone with her own record of support for extremism and indifference to anti-Semitism—undermines confidence in the whole enterprise.
Also unmentioned by Biden was the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021, which was presented by House Democrats in the last month. It’s part of a broad push from Democrats to build support for what can only be described as a new domestic war on terror that is roughly analogous to measures put in place after the 9/11 attacks by the Bush administration to counter Islamist extremism.
The bill would create a specific domestic terror office within the Department of Justice and empower the FBI to expand its efforts against extremists. It has come in for some justified criticism from civil libertarians on both the right and the left, who fear that it is unnecessary since the government already has all the tools it needs to investigate and prosecute such criminals. Equally important, it’s exactly the kind of overreaction to events that would expressly empower the kind of prosecutorial overreach that is inherently oppressive and presents as much of a threat to democracy as the evil it is intended to counteract.
The idea that the federal government has been asleep with regard to dealing with violence from white supremacists until now is a myth. It’s not that the government wasn’t prosecuting white supremacists. Trump’s critics were unhappy because it was also seeking to counteract violence from far-left groups like Antifa, which played something of a role in the 574 violent riots that took place last year in hundreds of cities in association with otherwise “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protests. While attention has rightly been paid to the violence that took place on Jan. 6, last summer’s violence, in which at least 25 persons were killed and more than 2,000 police officers injured seems to have been thrown down the Orwellian memory hole by the new administration and its cheerleaders in their zeal to hunt down right-wing bad guys.
Nevertheless, the House bill has been embraced by the ADL. But not satisfied with the prospect of government agencies given a brief to treat what even advocates for these measures admit are small groups that have no history of coordinated terrorism, the anti-Semitism watchdog is offering its own far-reaching proposals for widening this war on domestic terror in directions that are even more alarming.
The ADL’s PROTECT plan isn’t just about the prosecution of extremists who commit violence. Though it claims that it will also protect civil liberties, it wants, among other things, to mobilize Big Tech companies in this campaign by supposedly ending the “complicity of social media in facilitating extremism.”
It is here that the push to treat the Jan. 6 rioters as the moral equivalent of Al-Qaeda is most dangerous. As we’ve seen in recent months, the collusion between Big Tech companies, liberal mainstream media outlets and the Democrats has created a situation in which free discourse on the Internet has been called into question.
The problem isn’t whether there is a consensus about addressing violent extremism. On that, there is little disagreement on either side of the political aisle.
However, encouraging the government and the social-media oligarchs to crack down on free expression is, almost by definition, not going to be limited to genuine threats to public safety. Instead, it can and will be interpreted as granting legitimacy to efforts to silence dissent about a wide range of issues. That Biden and his supporters, as well as the ADL, are prepared to paint with a broad brush on these issues makes this appear to be not so much a war on domestic terror as potentially a war on domestic political opponents.
That is why the effort to inflate a violent mob into an “insurrection,” as if Jan. 6 was the start of an actual armed rebellion, is so troubling. So is the way reporting on the events of that riot, despicable though it was, has often ignored elements that undermine the narrative, such as the misreporting about the death of Capitol policeman Brian Sicknick, which has been used to justify sweeping away concerns about allowing government agencies the kind of broad powers that inevitably lead to abuses. That those who are asking politicians to pump the brakes on this kind of overreach are being treated as if they were supporters of the rioters or fellow travelers of terrorists illustrates the perils of how powerful a tool fear can be in the hands of those with an agenda.
We have every reason to view the existence of white-supremacist groups and violent anti-Semites with alarm and to demand that law enforcement be prepared to stop them from acting on their vile beliefs. But there is a difference between sensible precautions and hysteria that has its roots in political differences. That’s why the effort to use Jan. 6 as an excuse for a broad assault on civil liberties is not only unnecessary; it’s a threat to the very values of democracy that the authors of these measures claim they wish to protect.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.