You may remember the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, which killed 23 people in August 2019. This “deadliest attack to target Latinos in modern American history” was obviously extreme, but so was the response to it.
A flurry of opinion-makers demanded that the federal government give domestic terrorism what I call the “post-9/11 treatment.” The Stanford political science professor Michael McFaul recommended after the El Paso attack, in a now-deleted tweet, for America to “start a war on terrorism at home.” The Atlantic staff writer and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum agreed that our government should employ a “similar response” to “domestic white supremacist terrorism” as “foreign jihadi terrorism.” The Daily Beast echoed, “Now, before it grows any stronger, should be the time to move against it with the same kind of concerted international focus of attention and resources that were trained on Osama bin Laden. Now is the time for a global war on white nationalist terrorism.” In the primaries, Democratic presidential candidate and military veteran Pete Buttigieg told audiences that he “learned a lot [in Afghanistan] that sadly will be applicable here at home, too.”
Former CIA and FBI practitioners likewise specified all sorts of ways the post-9/11 global war on terror could be applied to fighting white-nationalist terrorists, from tracing the networks of extremists “just like we did against other terrorist groups” after 9/11 to changing our laws for us to “fight domestic terror groups…the way we treat foreign ones.” Six former senior directors for counterterrorism at the White House’s National Security Council released a joint statement calling on the government to go after the Timothy McVeighs as ferociously as the Osama bin Ladens.
The January 6 attack on the Capitol has recommenced calls to give right-wing extremists in America the post-9/11 treatment. Elizabeth Neumann, who served for three years under President Donald Trump in the Department of Homeland Security, said that “We have to go after the[se] people…with the same intensity that we did with al-Qaeda.” And we must treat Trump like Osama bin Laden for inciting the violence, as he was the “spokesperson that rallied the troops.” Gen. Stanley McChrystal claimed that right-wing extremists are following “the evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” which led to ISIS. Alex Stamos of the Stanford Internet Observatory recommended that we treat white nationalists at home like ISIS by monitoring and restricting their social media. The New York Times noted the growing push for a “9/11 Commission” for domestic extremism. Already, President Joe Biden is looking to add domestic terrorism specialists to the newly formed National Security Council. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the FBI to place all Capitol riot participants on the federal no-fly list.
But the post-9/11 treatment is hardly worth emulating. The war on terror has cost $6.4 trillion and 801,000 lives according to one estimate, created a massively expanded security state, and actually helped al-Qaeda to grow in Iraq, Libya, and Syria by generating the sorts of power vacuums that are ideal for terrorists to thrive.
Counterterrorism is admittedly difficult. The main challenge is to eliminate existing terrorists without generating new ones in the process. To thread this needle, law enforcement must distinguish between two types of “extremists”– those who employ extreme tactics versus those who merely harbor what may be regarded as extreme political preferences. Law enforcement should go after the former but not the latter. That is, it should punish those guilty of committing attacks like those against the Capitol or against shoppers at Walmart without assuming the role of the thought police.
Former CIA Director John Brennan exemplifies how not to conduct counterterrorism. In an interview on MSNBC shortly after the Capitol attack, deservedly mocked on social media, he claimed that law enforcement is moving “in laserlike fashion” to combat an “unholy alliance” of “authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians.” Notably, Brennan did not distinguish between those who use extreme tactics and those with whom he disagrees politically. For Brennan, both are enemies worthy not only of contempt, but action or at least government scrutiny.
This wide-net approach risks breeding more terrorists.
For starters, terrorists thrive on grievances. And the far right in particular has historically been fueled by perceived injustices. Timothy McVeigh attacked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to avenge government abuses at Ruby Ridge and Waco. A common narrative after the Capitol attack was that it would spur recruitment for the far right. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece titled “Capitol Attack Could Fuel Extremist Recruitment for Years, Experts Warn.” And yet far-right violence has historically eroded support for far-right movements, whereas government abuses have increased it. For this reason, many terrorists actually hope to elicit government overreactions in order to increase membership rosters.
As some scholarship suggests, such overreactions give people an incentive to become terrorists – not only by creating grievances but also by reducing the relative risks of turning to violence. A standard assumption in political science is that terrorists are rational actors. Many people decide against becoming terrorists because they know that the costs to them will be severe. But if the government is going to treat innocent people like terrorists anyway, then no additional risk is incurred. Unsurprisingly, terrorists thrive in the most illiberal countries, where governments fail to distinguish between terrorists and political dissidents.
Big Tech has been working with the government to combat extremism, often in counterproductive ways. A common approach is to “deplatform” leaders seen as extreme, including Trump.
Some commentators say that the logic is the same as killing the leaders of terrorist groups to make them less extreme. In reality, the research indicates the opposite. As I have shown in multiple studies, taking out the leaders of terrorist groups tends to make them even more extreme by empowering subordinates less restrained from using terrorism.
Government responses to the far right must be research-based and not just emotional reactions. Otherwise, they will make our country less free – and make the far-right threat worse, too.
Max Abrahms is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University.