Capitol Hill hate
White supremacy fueled insurrection. Now will the issue of racism be taken seriously?
It is one of the most indelible images from the Capitol Hill insurrection: A rioter carrying the Confederate battle flag — a symbol of racism and sedition — through the halls of Congress.
The image was jarring and grotesque — but even more disturbing, it was just one of many emblems of hate front and center in the terrifying Jan. 6 attempt to overthrow our country’s presidential election.
In the chaotic melee of vandalism and violence that day, signs of antigovernment militia movements, white supremacists and far-right extremists were everywhere: Banners and flags associated with the Three Percenters. Pepe the Frog masks and Oath Keeper hats. OK hand gesture white power signs. At least one person wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt, a reference to the Nazi concentration camp where more than one million men, women and children were killed.
It was something intelligence officials and the people who monitor extremist movements had long warned about — a deadly attack fueled by far-right domestic terrorism.
In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that “racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, made up the bulk of domestic terrorism threats.
A month later, the Department of Homeland Security called violent white supremacy the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”
The threat was clear — the day before the Capitol Hill riot, the FBI office in Virginia issued a warning that extremists were headed to Washington “to get violent” and “ready for war.” The danger was present — in the past 10 years, according to a former DHS official, 76 percent of terrorist attacks have come from the right wing.
Yet, law enforcement and national security officials were still caught flatfooted. Americans deserve to know why.
There must be a thorough investigation into the security failures — and a full-throated push by law enforcement and elected officials to ensure that far-right extremism is taken as seriously as threats coming from outside the country.
That doesn’t mean rushing to douse freedom of speech or curtail other civil liberties, as was done after the 9/11 terror attack. It means pinpointing the roots of far-right radicalization and stopping the doctrine of hate from continuing to seep into the mainstream.
In many ways, the spasm of rage we saw in the attack on the Capitol was a natural culmination of the presidency of a man who not only balked at condemning white nationalists, but who often employed racist dog whistles and embraced the language, tweets and beliefs of conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists.
In 2017, President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the clash between neoNazis and counterprotesters, one of whom was killed.
When asked to condemn white supremacists and militia groups during a presidential debate in September, he instead told the Proud Boys extremist group to “stand back and stand by” — a message interpreted by many on the far-right as a call to arms.
Trump’s failure to forcefully reject white supremacists and his espousing of extremist ideology served as a powerful recruiting tool for the farright movement, whose members took it as tacit approval, Kurt Braddock, assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, told the editorial board.
So what must be done to dismantle the hate groups such as those who stormed Capitol Hill?
It starts with accountability. Anyone involved in the attack must face legal consequences and stiff penalties. That will send a message that far-right terror will not be tolerated.
The Biden administration must also prioritize investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorism, with a special effort made to understand how farright extremists are being radicalized.
What’s more, elected officials must also consistently and forcefully disavow and reject extremist groups and beliefs. Generically condemning violence on all sides is not effective. Leaders must specifically call out those most responsible for each act of violence — whether it’s from the right, left, or any other affiliation.
Given the severity and greater frequency of attacks by the white supremacist movement, and the very real racial bias that leads some to discount its threat, attention from officials and law enforcement should be commensurate and sustained until that far-right threat is contained.
If the threat is taken seriously, the fever can break.
If it isn’t, the Capitol Hill attack will only be a harbinger of what is to come.