Was the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol a “terrorist” attack? It sure seems so.
The U.S. Code of Federal Regulation defines “terrorism” as including “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The FBI’s definition cuts to the point: terrorism is “Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.”
Six months after the January 6th assault on the Capitol, the White House issued a report, “National Strategy for Counting Domestic Terrorism,” that admits, “Domestic terrorism is not a new threat in the United States.” It then points out:
Across violent ideologies, individuals and small groups – both formal and informal – have been galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States to carry out violent attacks. … All told, today’s domestic terrorism threat poses a danger to Americans, our democratic society, and our national security that we must counter aggressively, comprehensively, and responsibly.
It also notes that “Domestic terrorists have – particularly in recent years – often been lone actors or small groups of informally aligned individuals who mobilize to violence with little or no clear organizational structure or direction.”
The U.S. has a long history of politically motivated terrorism. A snapshot of such violence during the half-century between 1970 and 2010 is revealing. The Global Terrorism Database characterizes this period in the following terms:
+ A third (32%) of groups known to have engaged in terrorist activity were motivated by ethnonationalist/separatist agendas.
+ Nearly three-our-of ten (28%) were motivated by single issues, such as animal rights and opposition to war.
+ Only 6 percent were motivated by religion.
In addition, 11 percent of the perpetrator groups were classified as extreme right-wing, and 23 percent were categorized as extreme left-wing.
However, during the quarter-century between 1994 and 2020, perpetrators of terrorist attacks shifted from left-wing to right-wing. The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) found that there were 893 “terrorist attacks and plots” in the U.S. Going further, it notes:
Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority — 57 percent –of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.
CSIS found that there was a decline in right-wing activity in the early-2000s but an increase in left-wing activity. It reports that “most of these left-wing attacks targeted property associated with animal research, farming, or construction and were claimed by the Animal Liberation Front or the Earth Liberation Front.”
During the 1990s right-wing terrorist activities continued, peaking in 1995 with 43 incidents, including the Oklahoma City bombing, the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history after the 9/11 attacks. By the mid-2010s, right-wing terrorist events were 53 in 2017, 29 incidents ’18 and 44 in ‘19 to 44. CSIS reports “religious attacks and plots have also shown some increases during this period — notably in 2015, 2017 and 2019 — but at a significantly smaller magnitude than right-wing events.”
A 2021 New America Foundation study found there were over 250 people killed in terrorist attacks in the post-9/11 era. It breaks down the factors behind the deaths into five types:
+ Far Right Wing = 112
+ Jihadist = 107
+ Ideological Misogyny/Incel Ideology = 17
+ Black Separatist/Nationalist/Supremacist = 12
+ Left Wing = 1
The “postmodern” era of political terrorism began in 1995 with Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. An Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, McVeigh was enraged by the federal government’s killing of Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge (IO) in August 1992 and the deaths among Branch Davidians in Waco (TX) in 1993. He found revenge in the destruction of a federal building, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring more than 680 others.
McVeigh must have been filled with unimaginable rage. To conceive, plan and execute such a monstrous action must have required enormous rage — and the intelligence and disciplined will-power to pull it off. His military training must have helped. Surely, the same or a similar rage drives other politically motivated “terrorists.” And this rage is informed by a powerful rightwing, Christian nationalist “ideology” or “belief system, e.g., the “Great Replacement.”
One expression of the rage is expressed by white supremacists who act out anti-Muslim, antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Hispanic or anti-Asian rage. New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJ-OHAP) issued a report, “Online Manifestos Inspire Other Extremists,” that notes that Anders Breivik, a white nationalist who killed 93 people in Norway in July 2011, “has been the inspiration for multiple white supremacist extremists ….”
Hours before Breivik started the killings, he published in English a 1,500-page manifesto on the internet, “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence.” About 700 pages of the manifesto is devoted to attacking Muslims. One excerpt suggests Breivik’s vision:
The new “conservative order” should (once consolidations of Western and/or Eastern European cultural conservative military tribunals have been established) prepare for mass deportations of all Muslims living in Europe. The first step will be the construction of huge transit zones.
Breivik was inspired by Renaud Camus, the French philosopher and writer who coined the concept, “Great Replacement” in his 2011 book, Le Grand Remplacement. Breivik draw on Camus’s preoccupation with Muslim immigration to Europe and his theory that Muslims — and other non-white populations — had a much higher birth rate than whites. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs notes, “the great replacement … argues that white Christian populations are under threat of extinction due to (Muslim, non-white) mass migration and declining birthrates, both promoted by a global elite (often coded as Jewish).”
Breivik’s killings and manifesto inspired Robert Bowers to attack the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 27, 2018, yelling, “All Jews must die.” Armed with an assault rifle and several handguns, he opened fire upon the Sabbath congregants, killing 11 and wounding six others, including four police officers. When captured, Bowers said he “wanted all Jews to die” and that Jews “were committing genocide against his people.”
Another antisemitic attack took place on April 27, 2019, when John Earnest killed one and injured three at a synagogue in Poway, CA. In a letter he released online, Earnest claimed that Jews were responsible for the genocide of “white Europeans.” He wrote [#64]:
I hate anyone who seeks the destruction of my race. Spics and niggers are useful puppets for the Jew in terms of replacing Whites. Of course, they aren’t intelligent enough to realize that the Jew is using them and they will be enslaved if Europeans are eliminated. Do they actively hate my race? Yes, I hate them. Are they in my nation but do not hate my race? I do not hate them, but they aren’t staying. Are they out of my nation and do not hate my race? Fine by me.
Reflecting on this action, Earnest admitted:
“If you told me even 6 months ago that I would do this I would have been surprised. […] …keep up the memes of Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally. He showed me that it could be done. And that it needed to be done.”
Such acts continue till today. On Saturday, January 15, 2022, a British national, Malik Faisal Akram, wandered into the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue Colleyville, TX, and threatened to kill the handful of people attending the Sabbath service.
Political terrorists can also target ethic groups. Patrick Crusius killed 23 people and wounded almost two dozen others at a Walmart store on August 3, 2019, in El Paso, TX. In the manifesto posted on 8chan shortly before the attack, he stated:
This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion … Actually the Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.
Crusius claimed that he was “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
My death is likely inevitable. If I’m not killed by the police, then I’ll probably be gunned down by one of the invaders. Capture in this case if far worse than dying during the shooting because I’ll get the death penalty anyway. Worse still is that I would live knowing that my family despises me.
He concluded, “therefore I’m not going to surrender even if I run out of ammo.”
Asian Americans have been another target of hate crimes, some attacks verging on terrorism. On March 16, 2021, Robert Long, a 21-year-old white man, bought a handgun and attacked three different Asian-owned spas in Atlanta, GA, killing eight, six of whom were of Asian descent. In addition. there have been repeated attacks on Asian Americans in New York, San Francisco and other cities.
January 6, 2022, marked the first anniversary of the violent effort by enraged supporters of Donald Trump to change the results of the 2021 presidential election – thus overthrowing the elected U.S. government. Their effort failed. Unfortunately, Trump’s often-repeated claim that the election was stolen gives “presidential” legitimacy to those of the radical right – especially race and ethnic nationalists.
Symbolically, Trump legitimizes personal rage, and this rage is embodied in rightwing political violence. As America’s current socio-economic crisis depends, so too will rightwing political terrorism.