Should We Fight a War on White Terrorism?

Although its precise scale is hard to measure, violent white supremacy is clearly a problem in the United States.

From El Paso to Pittsburgh, the fears and fantasies of an immigrant invasion, a liberal Jewish betrayal, and a righteous race war have motivated surgically targeted slaughter. With law enforcement — especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — seemingly more concerned with “black identity” and “animal rights/environment extremists,” our so-called “War on Terrorism” looks more distorted than ever.

Should we be trying to even the score?

Although it is tempting to embrace Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for white supremacy to be treated as domestic terrorism, any widening of the current, more narrow “war” should be approached with caution. History suggests that repression of these movements may well succeed, but also bring a troubling mix of unintended consequences.

The Old Wars on White Terrorism 

The obvious analogue to today is the 1960s. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover long held that national security was under attack not from the architects of near-daily atrocities in “Bombingham,” Alabama, or from a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, but instead the Black Panther Party and the unruly, allegedly Communist-sponsored “agitators” of the Civil Rights movement.

Hoover had to be cajoled, belatedly, by President Johnson before the FBI promised, in September 1964, to “expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various Klans and hate organizations” across the country.

By 1970, 17 field offices were participating in this “counter-intelligence program” (COINTELPRO), which included tried-and-tested methods like the “manipulation of informants, anonymous letters, and friendly press services” to foment conflicts among the leaders of white supremacist organizations. The Bureau even exposed the Jewish descent of the Nazi Party’s Midwest Coordinator.

By most accounts, these typically dirty tricks — honed by their deployment against civil rights leaders — were effective in undermining groups like the Klan.

The story was different when the federal government was confronted with its first bout of “White Terror” after the Civil War. Initially disorganized violence against newly emancipated African Americans solidified quickly into a politically inspired assault on Reconstruction: The Civil War-era Republican Party’s attempt to build something like a biracial democracy in the South.

Although our received image of Southern racism is the grinning, poor, illiterate white man ogling at a burning black body, the original Ku Klux Klan was more country club than trailer park — formed and sustained by prominent politicians, decorated Confederate veterans, and former slaveholders.

This embedding of the Klan in respectable society ensured its expansion throughout the late 1860s. Only in 1870, with Ulysses Grant in the White House, and after the harrowing Ku Klux Klan Congressional hearings, did a counter-terrorism plan develop.

By our standards, the Enforcement Acts — passed by Congress in 1870 and 1871 — were relatively tame, focusing, for the most part, on beefing up the newly created federal Department of Justice.

But the third of these acts provided for a true emergency power: The president could suspend the writ of habeas corpus in pursuit of white terror organizations.

Grant, it seems, was genuinely appalled by Klan violence, and did not hesitate to act on his new authority in response to rampant terrorism in South Carolina. Yet resistance to “Bayonet Rule” — including from within his own party — combined with a devastating economic crisis and deepening Republican divisions to leave most of the former Confederacy to the mercy of well-armed “Redeemers” intent on restoring the Old South.

In this, the first American war on white terrorism, the terrorists unquestionably won.

What Can We Learn? 

These historical episodes could be interpreted simply: If Ulysses Grant had a J. Edgar Hoover and a COINTELPRO instead of an overstretched army and a reticent Congress, Reconstruction might have had a fighting chance of success. The civil libertarians may not like it, but the only remedy for white supremacy is our strongest possible repressive medicine.

Today, however, this argument raises two difficult questions.

First, would repression actually work? It is not hard to identify people who march around with bedsheets on their heads or swastikas on their sleeves. Navigating the largely online network of the “alt-right” movement is less straightforward: leaderless, dispersed, and rarely traceable to a specific organization.

Second — and much more difficult — could repression backfire?

A combination of old-school and modern methods — infiltration, surveillance, hacking, propaganda — is surely at least capable of disrupting the activities of white terrorist groups. But here the civil libertarians do have a point: Extreme powers used for one purpose can easily be recycled for something else.

Britain passed a Public Order Act to restrict fascist demonstrations, and the government deployed it against communists; the US Congress established a House Un-American Activities Committee with the goal of exposing Nazis, only to turn it overwhelmingly against the left; and France’s Lellouche Law — aimed at hate speech — has more recently targeted pro-Palestinian activists.

Even in supposedly strong democracies, checks and balances have struggled to reverse these repressive cycles. We could boot President Trump out of office and craft a new counter-terrorism law carefully directed at white supremacists, but it will still be interpreted and enforced by Trump-packed courts, an unaccountable national security bureaucracy, and more than a few rogue local law enforcement agencies. The end result is unlikely to be pretty.

The Real Risk of Overreaction

After the El Paso shooting on August 3, the FBI called for a law much like this.

Apparently rooted in common sense, these proposals should be viewed skeptically. The alternative is not necessarily to do nothing, or, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested, to offer an olive branch to young men “in the grips of hatred.”

There is a strong argument for reallocating the resources of law enforcement away from mosques, Muslim Student Associations, and games of cricket, and toward the real threats posed by white supremacists. But the last thing we should encourage is an expanded “War on Terror.”

This essay originally appeared on FPIF.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
January 24, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
A Letter From Iowa
Jim Kavanagh
Aftermath: The Iran War After the Soleimani Assassination
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Camp by the Lake
Chuck Churchill
The Long History of Elite Rule: What Will It Take To End It?
Robert Hunziker
A Climate Time Bomb With Trump’s Name Inscribed
Andrew Levine
Trump: The King
James Graham
From Paris, With Tear Gas…
Rob Urie
Why the Primaries Matter
Dan Bacher
Will the Extinction of Delta Smelt Be Governor Gavin Newsom’s Environmental Legacy?
Ramzy Baroud
In the Name of “Israel’s Security”: Retreating US Gives Israel Billions More in Military Funding
Vijay Prashad
What the Right Wing in Latin America Means by Democracy Is Violence
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Biden’s Shameful Foreign Policy Record Extends Well Beyond Iraq
Louis Proyect
Isabel dos Santos and Africa’s Lumpen-Bourgeoisie
Nick Pemberton
AK-46: The Case Against Amy Klobuchar
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Promtheus’ Fire: Climate Change in the Time of Willful Ignorance
Linn Washington Jr.
Waiting for Justice in New Jersey
Ralph Nader
Pelosi’s Choice: Enough for Trump’s Impeachment but not going All Out for Removal
Ted Rall
If This is a Democracy, Why Don’t We Vote for the Vice President Too?
Mike Garrity – Jason Christensen
Don’t Kill 72 Grizzly Bears So Cattle Can Graze on Public Lands
Joseph Natoli
Who’s Speaking?
Kavaljit Singh
The US-China Trade Deal is Mostly Symbolic
Cesar Chelala
The Coronavirus Serious Public Health Threat in China
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Must Remain Vigilant and on Guard Against US Hybrid Warfare
Robert Fantina
Impeachment as a Distraction
Courtney Bourgoin
What We Lose When We Lose Wildlife
Mark Ashwill
Why Constructive Criticism of the US is Not Anti-American
Daniel Warner
Charlie Chaplin and Truly Modern Times
Manuel Perez-Rocha
How NAFTA 2.0 Boosts Fossil Fuel Polluters, Particularly in Mexico
Dean Baker
What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace With Productivity
Mel Gurtov
India’s Failed Democracy
Thomas Knapp
US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Free Speech?
Winslow Myers
Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”
Jeff Mackler
U.S. vs. Iran: Which Side are You On?
Sam Pizzigati
Braggadocio in the White House, Carcinogens in Our Neighborhoods
Christopher Brauchli
The Company Trump Keeps
Julian Vigo
Why Student Debt is a Human Rights Issue
Ramzy Baroud
These Chains Will Be Broken
Chris Wright
A Modest Proposal for Socialist Revolution
Thomas Barker
The Slow Death of European Social Democracy: How Corbynism Bucked the Trend
Nicky Reid
It’s Time to Bring the War Home Again
Michelle Valadez
Amy Klobuchar isn’t Green
David Swanson
CNN Poll: Sanders Is The Most Electable
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Dire Need for “Creative Extremists”—MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Robert Koehler
FBI, King and the Tremors of History
Jill Richardson
‘Little Women’ and the American Attitude Toward Poverty