As America reels from white supremacist violence, policymakers across the country are grappling with how to curb the threat to domestic safety posed by the far-right.

In their related Washington Post op-ed, “Grants to Fight Terrorism are Only the Beginning,” Thomas Warrick and Javed Ali discuss the need to direct more money and resources to combat the imminent threat of domestic terrorism in the U.S.

Speaking from their expertise as former members of the Department of Homeland Security, Warrick and Ali note the immediacy of this threat in the wake of the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

While I agree that white supremacy and other forms of domestic terrorism urgently need to be addressed, I believe the authors focus too narrowly on responding to terrorist threats, instead of preempting terrorism by creating what I call an “anti-terrorist society,” that seeks to prevent terrorist behavior from fostering in the first place.

This involves treating domestic violence as a national security issue and ensuring that countries combat domestic terrorism while upholding civil liberties, especially for marginalized populations who have historically been unfairly targeted by anti-terrorist campaigns.

Warrick and Ali are right to note that more money must be allocated to address domestic terrorism. During the Trump administration, both far-right and far-left extremism increased, and mass shootings, particularly by white supremacists, have become disturbingly common.

The recent Atlanta shootings, targeting Asian-Americans, further underscore the immediacy of this matter. There must be more money and resources for research, monitoring, policing, and programs to stem the tide of terror that threatens not only homeland security but American prestige abroad.

However, Warrick and Ali’s vague suggestions to simply do “more” to fight terrorism neglects one of the most important (and ignored) methods to combat terrorism: addressing violence against women. Domestic violence is one of the most reliable indicators of a potential mass shooter. Yet the issue is usually not taken seriously because domestic violence is seen as a “private issue.”

The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, for instance, does not list ‘domestic violence‘ as highly, moderately, or minimally predictive of terrorism in their “Homegrown Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators,” instead only listing it as a ‘risk factor.’

The failure to fully recognize this connection not only endangers national security by missing potential early warning signs of violent extremism, it also illustrates a broader lack of understanding of the psychology of terrorism: a society that is willing to turn a blind eye to the brutalization of its most vulnerable is a society that validates domination and destruction as a valid means of communication and obtaining needs.

The April 2020 shootings in Nova Scotia, which originated as an act of domestic violence by a perpetrator with an unaddressed history of it, are a prime example of this shameful phenomenon.

The U.S. must not be a country of violent domination, but rather one of open communication, community, and support for all. A culture of individualism and freedom from excessive government intervention in private life need not justify wanton ignorance toward private acts of cruelty; to do so enables further acts of cruelty like terrorism. The April 2020 shootings in Nova Scotia, which originated as an act of domestic violence by a perpetrator with an unaddressed history of it, are a prime example of this shameful phenomenon.

The Biden administration must take violence against women seriously and treat it as a national security issue. It must address the domestic-abuser-to-terrorist pipeline. One way to do so would be to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which allows abusive men to get access to firearms.

The U.S. should adopt Canada’s strategy of screening gun license applicants for domestic violence and requiring approval from their conjugal partner to apply for a license.

President Biden, who has dedicated his life to addressing violence against women, and who has already designated sexual assault in the military as a national security issue, is well-suited to lead this critical effort. Encouragingly, Biden has expressed a desire to close the boyfriend loophole.

Additionally, while stopping domestic terrorism is important, it is critical that national security does not come at the expense of civil liberties. Warrick and Ali, in their piece, state that “the United States successfully overcame previous peaks of domestic terrorism in the 1870s, the 1920s, the 1970s, and the 1990s.”

However, that safety often came with the unacceptable curtailing of civil liberties, particularly with measures targeting marginalized populations, such as mass deportations of Italian and Eastern European immigrants during the Palmer raids of the 1920s (where immigrants were targeted for deportation by then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on charges of anarchist and Bolshevist radicalism) or surveillance and police violence against Black Power organizations with COINTELPRO and Operation CHAOS in the 1970s.

The U.S. must root counterterrorism campaigns in its own concept of a trusting, respectful, tolerant, just, and open society.

These campaigns were not only unconstitutional and unjust—the mistrust, violence, and factional divisiveness fostered by them only begot further violence. These crackdowns worsened the economic inequality, racial resentment, and suspicion of government that now makes the U.S. a more dangerous place.

Instead, the U.S. must root counterterrorism campaigns in its own concept of a trusting, respectful, tolerant, just, and open society. They must reflect the interests of all citizens, not the privileged and powerful few. In defending the U.S. against those who wish it harm, we must not undermine that which makes it great: freedom, diversity of opinion, and religious and racial tolerance. 

Warrick and Ali have opened an important, timely discussion in their op-ed. However, to take meaningful action against domestic terrorism, we must propose novel, concrete strategies, and affirm our commitment to upholding the U.S. as a free and open society.

The U.S. prides itself on its ability to set global standards on what is ‘good and just.’ Viewing the scourges of domestic violence and terrorism as linked would be a commendable goal, and one that the U.S. ought to pursue.

Rachel Zack is pursuing a BA (Honours) at the University of Toronto, majoring in history and international relations. Her research interests include gender-based violence, the politics of identity, and Canadian and American national security policy. Her work has been published in The Future of History Journal, the NATO Association of Canada, and the SIR Journal of International Relations. Rachel is a Summer Fellow with the Institute for Liberal Studies, where she is researching community-based solutions to gender-based violence.

Photo Credit: Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons

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