President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Jan. 20, 2021. Six of Biden's 17 first-day executive orders dealt with immigration, such as halting work on a border wall in Mexico and lifting a t

Extremism

Civil rights groups oppose expanding laws to target domestic terrorists

Some lawmakers want to make it easier to investigate and charge someone for domestic terrorism. But civil rights groups say they shouldn’t. 

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President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Jan. 20, 2021. Six of Biden's 17 first-day executive orders dealt with immigration, such as halting work on a border wall in Mexico and lifting a travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries. 

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Evan Vucci/AP 

The Biden administration — prompted by the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by extremist supporters of Donald Trump — has announced a sweeping review of how the federal government deals with threats of domestic terrorism.

Leaders in the House and Senate have also introduced legislation that they say would strengthen law enforcement efforts to address domestic terrorism. But 135 human rights groups have written a joint letter to lawmakers opposing an expansion of terrorism laws.

“As well-intended as it is, we're pretty confident that when those laws get put in place, they're not necessarily going to be going after, you know, the Proud Boys per se. It's much more likely that it would be, Arab Americans, American Muslims, Black Lives Matter protesters. It's just a pattern that we regrettably are quite familiar with.”

Maya Berry, Arab American Institute

“As well-intended as it is, we're pretty confident that when those laws get put in place, they're not necessarily going to be going after, you know, the Proud Boys per se,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, one of the organizations that signed the letter to lawmakers. “It's much more likely that it would be, Arab Americans, American Muslims, Black Lives Matter protesters. It's just a pattern that we regrettably are quite familiar with.”

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But others say law enforcement has done everything it can under existing laws, and it hasn’t been enough.

Tom O’Connor, an FBI agent who worked on white supremacist criminal activity and domestic terrorism until he retired in 2019, said part of the problem is that there’s no statute under US law that establishes criminal penalties solely for “domestic terrorism.”

“In the 23 years that I worked domestic extremists, no one was ever charged as being a domestic terrorist — and that’s what they should be charged with,” he said. “By making domestic political violence a criminal offense under federal law, you’re not adding any investigative or surveillance authorities to law enforcement. You are just making the crime of political violence illegal in the United States.”

Some proposed legislation would put a review board in place to help prevent law enforcement abuses like those that occurred in the past, said Jason Blazakis, former director of the State Department’s counterterrorism office. He is now the director of the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism.

“Unfortunately, I think there's kind of a knee-jerk reaction against the possibility of a domestic terrorism law,” Blazakis said. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand it can be narrowly tailored.”

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As things are now, he said, white suspects aren’t called "terrorists" as often as Black people and other people of color. Blazakis said that creates an optic that exacerbates existing racial inequities.

“So, I think there is an important symbolic value to a domestic terrorism update that would allow for the United States to start considering, quite frankly, white people as terrorists, to not just brown or Black people or people who may worship a certain faith,” he said.

That doesn’t persuade Berry of the Arab American Institute.

“I appreciate when people are saying, ‘We want to call it the same thing to kind of, in some ways, vindicates your community.’ OK, I mean, fine, if you feel strongly about that, that's great,” she said. “For me, though, it's about doubling down on a deeply flawed and highly discriminatory counterterrorism regime that we've had in place.”

For instance, the FBI surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. and infiltrated the Black Panthers. After 9/11, authorities wiretapped and detained people without warrants. They profiled and targeted Muslim Americans and other people of color in the name of national security.

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Berry said new laws giving law enforcement more authority would just lead to more abuses. She said there are already many laws on the books that allow authorities to go after white extremists effectively. They just don’t use the legal term terrorism.

“It's not a situation where I need to call it terrorism in order for it to be taken seriously. We can take it seriously without that.”

Maya Berry, Arab American Institute

“It's not a situation where I need to call it terrorism in order for it to be taken seriously,” Berry said. “We can take it seriously without that.”

But Berry said federal law enforcement hasn’t been taking white extremists seriously and hasn’t been fully enforcing existing laws, despite the dramatic rise in hate crimes against people of color. And, the increasing pace of incidents involving white nationalists.

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“There have been very specific examples of white supremacist violence that should have warranted a more serious response,” Berry said. “We just need the will to really take that threat more seriously and do that before we talk about the law change.”

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