In a speech that was largely a big government spending wish list, President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress didn’t spend that much time on foreign policy or security issues. But there was one line in it that did speak directly to Jewish communal concerns. Segueing from a brief mention of his decision to withdraw the last American troops from Afghanistan, he noted that since the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism has “metastasized.” After correctly noting the need to “remain vigilant” against threats from Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups he chose not to name in the Middle East, Biden then identified what he claimed was, “the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism.”
In a piece of literary sleight of hand that was difficult to pick up on without reading the transcript, it’s important to note that Biden wasn’t directly saying that the main threat to national security is those white supremacists who engage in terrorism. What he said was that an ideology of racism was itself terrorism and then proceeded to discuss the aftermath of the trial of the former police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering George Floyd.
While all decent Americans share Biden’s disgust with racism and sadness about what happened to Floyd, the notion that ideas, even hateful ones, rather than actual threats are terrorism is not so much an alternate definition than it is a way of defining the term so as to render it meaningless.
As the Jewish community knows, armed right-wing extremists are capable of inflicting terrible harm, as seen in the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. What the president is selling us is the notion that the real threat to American security is a terrorist movement of such white supremacists waiting to strike.
That’s the conceit behind the Anti-Defamation League’s push, echoed by the Justice Department, to create new laws that would give legal authorities seeking to prosecute those who can be labeled as associated with a terrorist movement the same latitude that is given our security services to deal with foreign threats. The “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act” introduced by House Democrats would move in that direction.
No one should discount the possibility that more lone-wolf terrorists, encouraged by the propaganda they read online, may emerge to create more horrors such as Pittsburgh or Poway. America is a country where mass shootings happen frequently, although many of them are caused by mentally ill people obtaining dangerous weapons rather than being the product of a putative white-supremacist terrorist movement against which we should be mobilizing.
And while law enforcement should, as by all accounts it has already been doing, be vigilant against such a possibility, the idea that this is the main threat to our security seems rooted primarily in politics more than anything else.
We heard a great deal in the first 100 days of Biden’s administration about the disgraceful event that happened two weeks before he took office. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot was a shameful incident. Those involved in breaking into the building were deeply wrong as were those, including former President Donald Trump, who encouraged them. But in the months since, it has been relentlessly inflated into an “insurrection” and, as Biden hyperbolically put it, “the worst attack on democracy since the Civil War.”
The mob that invaded the Capitol produced some terrible images, but this kind of talk gives an out-of-control mob more credit than it deserves. Indeed, many of the most egregious claims about it, such as the idea that some who attended came armed with zip-tie handcuffs to kidnap members of Congress or that rioters beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher, have been debunked as false rumors. The only real mystery about that day remains why it is that the shooting of one of the demonstrators, a woman who was gunned down by a still-unnamed law-enforcement official, has been hushed up—something the media wouldn’t have tolerated if it had been a Black Lives Matter demonstrator who had been killed.
Despite dire predictions of more insurrections to come and fortification of the Capitol and the continued presence of more troops in Washington than were there during the actual insurrection of the Civil War, the white-supremacy terror threat has yet to materialize. Democrats’ efforts to label everyone who disagrees with the BLM movement as white supremacists have also undermined Biden’s warnings about terrorism.
Some of those who broke into the Capitol—most of whom appear to be guilty of trespassing, disorderly conduct and property damage—remain in jail. Some spent months in solitary confinement. We should expect more such draconian measures if we start fighting a domestic war on terrorism that doesn’t target actual terrorists. Meanwhile, most of the rioters who attacked government buildings, and burned and looted businesses during last summer’s “most peaceful” demonstrations, were out of jail in a day at most. Some were actually bailed out by a fund supported by Vice President Kamala Harris. The effort to rewrite the history of the last year so as to depict the post-George Floyd unrest as being entirely peaceful while treating the Capitol riot as another Civil War is already underway with an assist from Biden.
Biden’s vague warnings and redefinition of terrorism, the notion of a domestic war on terror ought to scare everyone. That’s especially true for those who still care about civil liberties, though the number of those who can be so described has declined after the coronavirus pandemic proved that most Americans care more about perceived threats to their health than about their liberty.
Biden referenced 9/11 when he talked about white supremacy being terrorism, though he failed to note that America should have learned some lessons about employing government power since then. The Patriot Act, after which the current efforts to weaponize the law against extreme right-wingers is modeled, was effective in some respects but was also an example of overreach, doing as much to infringe upon our freedoms as it did to stop Al-Qaeda.
The motive for that legislation was preventing another 9/11. If the current effort’s goal is to stop another Capitol riot, then its impact on our freedom will be all out of proportion to any deterrent to future mobs who wish to barge into the halls of Congress.
But while Biden is mobilizing the country against an amorphous threat of white-supremacist terror, he isn’t being honest about equal vigilance against other very real threats.
His push to loosen enforcement of immigration laws, which has created a massive humanitarian crisis at America’s southern border, and rated nary a mention in his speech, has also brought with it a more cavalier approach to border security, something that is an open invitation to terrorists.
Biden’s main foreign-policy priority is reinstituting the Iran nuclear deal. If he succeeds, that will end American sanctions on the regime in exchange for Tehran rejoining the pact (while doing nothing to change the fact that it will give the ayatollahs a legal path to a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade). That means the United States will be making it easier for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism to continue funding such killers. Indeed, as even The New York Times reported in 2019, Trump’s sanctions had the effect of starving Iran’s terrorist allies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen of the funds they need to threaten Israel and other targets, including the United States.
The government should monitor white supremacists and do what it can to stop them from committing violence. But this is an administration that is more serious about smearing its opponents as “insurrectionists” and labeling those who don’t agree with the extremists of the Black Lives Matter movement as “white supremacists” than it is about terrorism. We can only hope that the long-term cost of this mistaken policy will be merely political rather than something far worse.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.