Why We’re Not Prepared to Prosecute White Nationalist Violence

Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flags during the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" Rally on 12 August 2017. Image: Anthony Crider/Wikimedia.

In the wake of the devastating January 6th attack on the Capitol, White nationalist domestic terrorism, once relegated to the political extreme, is now mainstream. Under the guise of stopping the spurious ‘steal’ of the 2020 presidential election, individuals and groups subscribing to a combination of an antigovernment mindset, racism, belief in one of the many racist theologies based on White supremacy, and a conspiratorial worldview convulsed that day in Washington, DC to violently demand a White state. 

However, even though such domestic terrorism is now recognized by President Biden and members of his Cabinet as the most pressing national security threat to the United States, what remains murky is whether or not to enact a federal criminal statue for domestic terrorism. Currently, such a law does not exist. While there are arguments supporting its creationnamely, federal resources would be allocated toward relevant counterterrorism initiatives157 civil rights organizations signed a letter opposing such a charge. History, past and present, testifies that such a criminal statute would only be wielded against people of color, already marginalized by that which is called the justice system

As I discuss at length in my forthcoming book, Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States, it is precisely in order to redress the systemic oppression committed in the name of national security against minoritized groupsincluding Muslim Americans and people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous Americansand to safeguard their First Amendment rights tantamount to that of White Americans, that a complete overhaul of the current counterterrorism paradigm is required. The first step is to acknowledge White nationalists as terrorists. Doing so will impact how both they and minoritized groups are represented and tried in the court of public opinion, and sentenced in the court of law. 

White nationalists in the court of public opinion 

While terrorists can be other than Muslim, the public imagination assumes that to be Muslim is to be a terrorist. Islamophobia, one facet of which is to erroneously conflate Muslim Americans with terrorism, is now a taken-for-granted facet of daily life from the media to members of Congress. In in the post-9/11 landscape, the blanket criminalization of Muslim Americans continues to license an intricate network of state-sponsored surveillance of innocent communities under the guise of national security. 

Being asked to spy on each other so often, and being spied on by local, state, and federal officials, without cause, has had a deleterious impact on the social and psychological fabric of the Muslim American community. No matter how “good they are” Muslim Americans are often regarded with suspicion, as if they’re inherently prone to violence. Many Muslims are also discriminated against, not only because of their beliefs, but because of their skin color and gender identity. Black Muslim Americans in particular are still regarded as outsiders even though the history of the United States is also the history of enslaved Black Muslims. To designate White nationalists as domestic terroriststhat is, people who planned and perpetrated acts of violence in order to further the political aim of a White statewill contribute to shifting the pejorative weight of the term itself onto those who are actually deserving of the label. 

White nationalism is transnational

Currently, a Muslim American can be prosecuted as a foreign terrorist, but a White nationalist cannot. This is because there’s a differential between a “homegrown violent extremist” and a “domestic violent extremist” within the Department of Homeland Security lexicon. A “homegrown violent extremist” acts under the influence or direction of a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO, but a “domestic violent extremist” does not. In other words, a “homegrown violent extremist” is Muslim and a “domestic violent extremist” is White. In praxis, this institutionalized Islamophobia results in dire consequences. 

Muslim Americans are disproportionately prosecuted and sentenced under a different set of rules, including the USA PATRIOT Act charge of “material support of terrorism,” carrying a 15-year maximum sentence, which is only applicable to FTOs. Entrapment tactics are often deployed to produce such a charge. Further exemplifying the Islamophobia within today’s counterterrorism approach, the Russian Imperial Movement, a foreignbut non-militant Islamistorganization, had its own designation made up for it (Specially Designated Global Terrorists) so as not to fall under the legal implications of an FTO. 

Illustrating this double-standard is the case of Ethan Melzer. In 2020, the Kentucky-born U.S. Army private was charged with plotting a deadly ambush on his fellow soldiers by sending sensitive information on his unit’s whereabouts to members of a neo-Nazi and Satanist organization named Order of the Nine Angles (O9A) as well as to a purported member of al-Qa’ida. Melzer was thus charged with “providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists,” not because of his link to O9A, but because of electronic communication with someone he thought was affiliated with al-Qa’ida.  

Another illogical facet to the current counterterrorism construct is that despite White nationalist groups not being designated as FTOs, in actuality they are transnational. People around the world adhering to this ideology share organizational affiliations, beliefs, and grievances, as well as direct communication. For example, in 2019, Brenton Tarrant, the Australian White nationalist terrorist who killed 51 Muslim New Zealanders in two separate attacks in Christchurch, shared his xenophobic manifesto, The Great Replacement, online before livestreaing his rampage via Facebook. Notably, Tarrant would directly influence Patrick Crusius’ horrific act of terrorism targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas five months later as well as Cruisus’ manifesto.

So that these imbalances can be rectified, White nationalist organizations specifically should be recognized as FTOs thereby allowing for the possibility of material support of terrorism charges under 18 U.S. Code § 2339B. Or, more justly, the concept of FTOs (and SDGTs) is dismantled especially in light of the recent evaluation by the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a DHS-funded fusion center, that their influence is “diminished.” It’s naiveté to believe that de jure law will translate into de facto equity; however, the current inequities also must not stand. 

White nationalists in the court of law

The unequal designations and sentencing of Americans as two categories of terrorists are also apparent in the categorization of weapons under the purview of the current federal criminal statute for domestic terrorism. The most prominent methods by which White nationalist domestic terrorists commit crimes are stabbings, shootings, and driving an automobile into a crowd. However, these are currently not considered under the current law. 

By comparison, assassinating a government official, using a weapon of mass destruction (or chemical or biological weapons), and airplane hijackingsall methods of violence utilized by militant Islamist groups such as al-Qa’idaare also all crimes that can be designated as applicable in the context of federal domestic terrorism. Such institutionalized Islamophobia within the counterterrorism paradigm translate into more resources toward addressing the wrong type of terrorism, because it’s clearly White nationalists who are the greatest national security threat to the United States. 

Just as it’s significant to change public perception of who is a terrorist, so, too, is it important to alter the idea of what constitutes terrorism. However, the abiding debate over gun rights and current gun laws will undoubtedly hamper attempts to also include such weapons in the calculus of terrorist crime. 

A call for holistic justice

In the direct aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was established to ensure national security. In the wake of January 6th, 2021, the complex network of  local, state, and national law enforcement agencies require restructuring to do exactly that. Based on what I define as holistic justice, the foundation of an effective national security framework will simultaneously recognize White nationalists as domestic terrorists and excise the multitude of Muslim Americans from this depiction. If the United States of America is to remain protected against all enemies foreign and domestic, the willful colorblindess and complicity of White America must not be an excuse to be blind to justice as well.