The truth behind calling the El Paso massacre an act of ‘domestic terrorism’

In the wake of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, US Attorney John Bash appeared on Sunday to declare that Federal authorities are treating the mass shooting as an act of “domestic terrorism.” This blunt, unapologetic term is one many people have been waiting to hear from Federal Authorities.

It appears to break away from the pattern of subdued rhetoric most white men perpetrating acts of violence have historically been dealt. Perhaps it is a sign that the nation has grown tired of granting white immunity. Yes, many would call his language progress. But, to those seeking justice, the promise of a domestic justice charge is an empty one- as in- it doesn’t exist

The law does clearly define domestic terrorism as activity that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws”. It is performed with the intent to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”.

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What the law fails to outline, however, are the repercussions of committing domestic terrorism. In the House Oversight Committee’s recent hearing “Confronting White Supremacy: Adequacy of the Federal Response,” the assistant director of the FBI Counter-terrorism Division, Michael McGarrity, said it himself: “There’s no domestic terrorism charge.” 

Currently, there exists no federal statute capable of charging an individual with domestic terrorism. The mechanism for dealing with racially motivated attacks such as that on El Paso, therefore, is critically lacking in a time when we most need it. 

This leaves a gaping hole in many cases. In August 2017, a man drove a Dodge Challenger into protesters while he was attending the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, injuring 19 and taking the life of of Heather Heyer. Despite the context of his violent crime, and an extended history of racism, including involvement with the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, the state of Virginia did not try him as a terrorist but rather charged him with murder and hate crimes. So, when former Attorney Jeff sessions first asserted that this event fit “the definition of domestic terrorism,” it was not the public reckoning we thought it to be.

Mary McCord, the former deputy assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, explains that when a person perpetuates violence using a vehicle or a firearm, they can be charged as a terrorist when there is evidence of connection to an international extremist group.

An individual who is motivated by white supremacy, on the other hand, can commit the same crime with identical weaponry and face no such conviction. Without a domestic terrorism charge, the justice system must often resort to charges such as murder or weapons offences. This double standard is dangerous. 

It comes as no surprise that the recent incidents of domestic terrorism reflect a surge in right wing extremism. In a Washington Post analysis of global terrorism, it was reported that attackers motivated by right-wing political ideologies have perpetrated the majority of shootings, bombings and other acts of violence, far more than any other category of domestic extremist in the past decade. Yet an FBI report released last November admited that the “Justice Department policies de-prioritize far-right terrorism as a national security threat, ranking it behind cases it labels ‘international’ terrorism”. 

This trend is not exclusive to the United States. Attacks motivated by nationalism and white-supremacist sentiments have impacted communities on an international scale. Attackers have taken to leaving behind manifestos expressing common themes and theories. For example, those responsible for the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; and El Paso, Texas shared the belief that immigration is a calculated initiative to replace white people with people of color. All three voiced their motivations on 8chan, an online forum which intentionally disregards moderators or guidelines. Both the terrorists from the El Paso and Poway attacks cited the violence in Christchurch as inspiration. 

What we are witnessing is the massive spread of hate-driven ideology. A pattern of localized acts of violence are gaining major media attention and inciting terror, triggering subsequent attacks of the same nature. Sound familiar?

We witnessed the same pattern in 2016, when ISIS inspired global mobilization. Terror sparked more terror, just as it does now. ISIS’s ideology proliferated through a widespread online network, radicalizing young men around the world, not dissimilar to the place where white supremacy thrives now. But if we will not go so far as to treat these as acts of international terrorism, a federal statute for domestic terrorism is the bare minimum. 

The Justice Department’s continuous reluctance to prosecute far-right radicals under charges of terrorism poses a number of implications, the most damaging being that the research,  investigation, and prevention of these incidents is ill-resourced. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of federal negligence followed by human suffering and tragedy.

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These occurrences are further enabled by loose gun regulations and the stalemate of legislative gun reform. Since 2011, upwards of 100 pieces of gun legislation have been introduced to Congress- and none have passed. Most don’t even make it to the House or Senate Floor. Elected officials have allowed party politics and the NRA to take precedence over the safety of their constituents. 

Negligence from the judiciary branch. Inaction from the legislative branch. Racist rhetoric from the executive branch. Our systems are failing us. As the tides of white supremacy continue to wash over our nation, the most sacred and safe spaces in our communities are being drowned by the fire hose of Federal inaction. A dangerous epidemic of dis-empowerment has overtaken the country. It is easy to feel demoralized and ineffectual when we watch the images of El Paso flit across our screens like we did Poway, Charlottesville, Pittsburg, and countless other victimized communities.

But active citizenship is the only way out. We must mobilize our friends, families, classmates, and neighbors in order to enact change. Civic engagement is crucial, and can be as simple as calling your local representative and leaving a message. We must all become active citizens to protect those most vulnerable.