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 a regular columnist based in the United States.
Nicole is a research affiliate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a visiting research associate at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.