Fascism is imperialism brought home.
No more evident was this than Trump supporters’ breach of the United States Capitol building on January 6 to stop the electoral count that would declare Joe Biden the president-elect. Among those were Ashli Babbitt—shot and killed—and Jake Angeli—the Viking horned “QAnon Shaman.” Shared between the tragic and farcical is militarism. Babbitt served 12 years in the Air Force, with four on active duty. Angeli claimed to have “served in the Navy for a while.” To those on the left, it comes as no surprise that those trained to occupy foreign countries and overthrow their governments would now do so domestically.
Biden disagrees. What is needed is not demilitarization, he says. Rather, the security state must be strengthened. Biden has rightfully observed a double standard, where Black people are targeted, while the far-right reigns free. More resources, he believes, will fill this gap. But you can’t fight white supremacy with white supremacy. Institutions that kill Black, Brown and Indigenous people cannot stop racism. Even with the best intentions, additional resources and powers will not come with a tag reading “Use only against racists.” Inevitably, they will be deployed against activists, racialized people and religious minorities.
The ignored threat
Security policy is often incoherent. Notwithstanding questions of what counts as “terrorism,” the far-right is responsible for the majority of extremist and terrorist activity within the United States. The Trump era has witnessed some of the worst instances of far-right violence, including the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (11 dead) and the 2019 El Paso massacre (26 dead). Meanwhile, the number of hate groups continues to grow. There are now some 20,000 militia members in the US, a quarter of whom are veterans, in more than 300 groups across the country. They are armed and ready to kill.
Yet, for the security establishment, the threat has fallen on deaf ears. In 2017, white supremacist groups were removed from the “Countering Violent Extremism” program—later renamed “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.” In 2019, Michael McGarrity, FBI Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division, admitted there was no strategy for combatting the far-right. In contrast, nearly 13,000 military personnel are deployed and almost $40 billion dollars are spent annually to fight “terrorism” in Afghanistan.
With his white nationalist rhetoric, Trump has taken most of the blame for the continued rise of the far-right in America. However, the failure to address this menace is a bipartisan problem. During Obama’s presidency, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded a report on right-wing extremism, which warned about the recruitment of veterans, and rolled back intelligence gathering. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continued its campaign of extrajudicial assassination using drone strikes to target alleged terrorists throughout the Global South.
Time to fill the gap?
If acquiescence to the far-right was not obvious before, it is now. Despite warnings, security personnel ignored the potential for violence in Washington. When it occurred, the police did not fight back. Some even took selfies with the rioters.
Last summer, the opposite happened. Black Lives Matter protests were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. Reporters were arrested and their equipment was seized. Unmarked vans kidnapped unarmed demonstrators. Police cruisers rammed into crowds.
Biden noted this discrepancy, stating that “Nobody could tell me that if it was a group of Black Lives Matter protesters… they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the thugs that stormed the Capitol.”
He’s right, but what’s the solution? Since November, the Biden team has been mulling new laws to combat “domestic terrorism.” What could go wrong? Well, quite a bit.
Biden’s proposal will not only fail, it will bolster white supremacy. Unlike Trump, Biden has labelled the rioters as racists. Yet, his policy remains vague. The Biden team’s proposals include making it easier for authorities to take guns from those “deemed harmful” and to create a White House post to oversee “the fight against ideologically inspired violent extremists.”
Nowhere is the far-right explicitly mentioned. With new gun laws, it will be up to law enforcement agents—the same men and women who brutalize and end Black lives—to determine who is “deemed harmful.” Many municipalities already have “extreme risk protection order” laws that allow police to remove firearms from those considered a risk. One study out of King County, Washington found that Black people were twice as likely to have their guns seized than white people.
This reflects a long history of racism in laws governing gun control. In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party began cop-watching. Panthers with loaded guns would lawfully observe police and intervene when brutality occurred. In response, California Governor Ronald Reagan, with the support of the National Rifle Association, instituted the Mulford Act, which prohibited publicly loaded firearms. In more recent history, it is often forgotten that New York City’s stop-and-frisk program was introduced in response to gun crime. Of the five million stops that occurred, over 80 percent were committed against Black and Latino people.
Fighting against “ideological extremism” also appears problematic. Biden has condemned white supremacy. Yet, last summer, in response to “violent” protests against police brutality, the president-elect mirrored his rival’s language. He stated that “anarchists should be prosecuted,” and condemned anti-fascist organizers. Even though most violence comes from the right, Biden has equated the violence of “both sides.”
“I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right,” he said in response to protests in Portland. With such statements, it is likely that his coming fight against “ideological extremism” will also include those on the left—the same people working the hardest to combat far-right extremism on the streets. Just as the impetus behind the Patriot Act was used against progressive activists, so too can we expect the same to occur with any legislation in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot.
No law will save us
But perhaps Biden will change his tune. Rather than “ideological extremism,” new legislation could explicitly target white supremacy. While violent racists have rarely been singled out, it has happened. Even under Trump, the DHS put forward the Focused Violence and Terrorism Prevention program, to combat white supremacy (albeit with the caveat that other forms of extremism would also be targeted).
But as Black feminist Audre Lorde warned, “you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” Insofar as they perpetuate white dominance, security agencies and police forces are white supremacist institutions. Many law enforcement agencies originated from slave patrols—no wonder they continue to disproportionately target and kill Black, Brown and Indigenous people. Since its inception, the CIA has worked diligently to overthrow democratically elected socialist governments in the Global South. Even if a program designed explicitly to combat white supremacy was created, the modus operandi would remain the same. If anything, such a program would likely woke-wash these violent institutions.
For this reason, efforts to combat white supremacy have failed. In Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began gathering information about white supremacists in the late 1980s. One of the agency’s paid informants, Grant Bristow, was a co-founder of the Heritage Front, Canada’s largest neo-Nazi group. Under his guidance, neo-Nazis were able to disseminate their propaganda more effectively. Bristow also helped commission hate crimes through phone harassment campaigns against anti-racist activists—some so severe that they required police protection. Today, he insists these measures were necessary for keeping his cover. However, with no arrests, it is questionable whether it was worth it.
Even if genuine effort was made to combat white supremacy, this would be unlikely to succeed. The trillions of dollars spent to fight terrorism has not only failed—the thousands of civilians maimed and killed has been the primary justification for recruitment by radical extremist organizations like ISIS. In expanding the War on Terror to the far-right, we should expect the same.
In 1992 the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms launched an assault against the Branch Davidians, a fundamentalist Christian group. What became known as the Waco Siege was a disaster, with 76 killed, including 25 children. This was the main inspiration behind the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism before 9/11. The siege also galvanized the militia movement, many of whose members came to Capitol Hill on January 6.
The images were frightening. One man’s sweater read “Camp Auschwitz.” Others brought nooses and carried Confederate flags. While those on the left might not be fans of the spectacle of electoral politics, the Capitol Hill riot was chilling.
But we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. The same police criticized for killing Black people are now being entrusted with stopping white supremacy. The security agencies that surveil activists are now seen as the solution to avoiding another far-right coup. Even the most well-meaning law cannot avoid this contradiction.
Aidan Simardone writes critically on counter-terrorism and state violence. He is a law student currently completing his Juris Doctor, with an interest in international and human rights law. He is the recipient of the 2020 National Association of Japanese Canadians & Roger Sachio Obata C.M. Prize in International Human Rights Law and the 2020 Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP Prize for the best paper in Sexuality and the Law.