The United States has a terrorism problem, and it is doing vanishingly little to stop it.
That should come as a surprise, given that the country is now nearly two decades into a war on terror that has cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The current terror crisis, though, is not rooted in groups like IS or al-Qaeda, but in the white-power movement. And as two of the three mass shootings in the US last week show, it's only growing in visibility and lethality.
The surge in white-power terrorism in the US became visible in 2015, when a white supremacist entered a black church and massacred nine worshippers. The Charleston shooting was not the only mass shooting that year, nor was it the only hate crime. But it shocked and scarred the nation because it evoked some of the darkest periods of racist violence in the nation's history: peaceful, prayerful people gunned down by a young white man who held overtly white supremacist views.
In the four years since that shooting, white-power terrorism has become a fixture of American life the same way that mass shootings did in the 2000s. From Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to El Paso, the country is populated with hashtag cities and terrorised communities. The nation is awash in manifestos from terrorists targeting synagogues, mosques and border towns, and while the mass racist gatherings of two years ago are less prevalent, the attacks have become deadlier.
Only in the past few years have reporters and law enforcement officials begun to refer to these events as terrorism, a word previously almost exclusively applied to attacks linked to Islamist extremist groups centred in foreign countries. But the same process of radicalisation, organisation and violence defines white-power terrorism in the US.
The internet has served as a primary site of radicalisation for both kinds of terrorists. The recent surge in white supremacist organising can be traced through online platforms, especially gaming communities and social media sites such as Gab (which the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter frequented) and 8chan (where post-massacre manifestos are frequently found). Members of these communities are ripe for political radicalisation, something former Trump administration official Steve Bannon recognised in 2014, when he began targeting gamers for his nationalist political movement.
Strategy, too, is a shared attribute. Since the 1980s, white-power groups have embraced what historian Kathleen Belew describes as a "leaderless resistance" strategy, the kind of cell-style terrorist organising generally associated with Islamist extremist groups. That approach, as Belew notes, made it difficult for federal prosecutors to win conspiracy convictions against violent white-power groups, leading them to pursue a "lone wolf" approach that has shaped not only legal tactics but media coverage of this type of domestic terrorism.
The most visible part of terrorism is, of course, the violent attacks, and here the propensity for mass shootings in the US disguises some of the similarities with other forms of terrorism. But in the US, white-power terrorism goes beyond shooting sprees. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh, part of both the militia and white-power movement, used a truck bomb to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City. And in Charlottesville in 2017, a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters.
And this form of terrorism is global. From New Zealand to Norway to Canada, white-power violence has killed scores of people.
Yet despite the stark similarities between these types of terrorism, the US government has shown far less interest in the one that has threatened far more American lives in the past five years.
Part of the reason: the US lacks a domestic terrorism law. While a government agency can call something domestic terrorism (there's a statutory definition), there is no criminal code, meaning that the tools available to counter-terrorism agencies are not available for prosecuting domestic white-power terrorism.
There are reasons to be wary of a domestic terrorism law. Historically, the federal government has been more likely to target vulnerable populations when its law-enforcement powers are strengthened. And there are existing laws, including conspiracy statutes, that are rarely used against white-power terrorists.
Why? According to Dave Gomez, a former FBI official who oversaw terrorism cases, the agency "is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white supremacist movement" because of the politics involved. "There's some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the President perceives as his base," he explained to the Washington Post last week.
Donald Trump, though, is not the only problem. A decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security released an intelligence briefing warning of a rise in right-wing extremism, including white-power extremism, and received such intense backlash from Republicans and conservatives that it ended up issuing an apology. The team working on domestic terrorism was reassigned to Islamist extremism.
Those political considerations have weakened efforts to counter domestic terrorists, at the very moment that violent and racist political rhetoric has bolstered them. Which means that, as shocking as last week's two white-power terrorist attacks were, Americans have little reason to expect a shock-and-awe response from their government.
- Nicole Hemmer is an SMH/The Age columnist based in the United States.