The Memo: America faces long war with extremism

More than two months after the Capitol riot, the nation is grappling anew with extremism.

The motives of the alleged shooter in Tuesday’s mass killing in the Atlanta area are still being investigated. But six of his eight fatal victims were Asian American women, and he had solely targeted Asian spas.

The following day, an armed man was arrested near Washington’s Naval Observatory, the official residence of Vice President Harris. Paul Murray, 31, of San Antonio, is alleged to have been in possession of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and more than 100 rounds of unregistered ammunition. 

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Police in Washington said the process that led to Murray’s arrest began with “an intelligence bulletin that originated from Texas.” He has reportedly been charged with several gun-related crimes.

Meanwhile, a newly declassified report from the director of national intelligence, commissioned by President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE, warns of the threat from domestic terrorists with motivations rooted in “biases against minority populations.”

“Newer sociopolitical developments” — including former President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE’s claim that November’s election was stolen from him — “will almost certainly spur” right-wing extremists to attempt acts of violence this year, the report stated.

If anyone thought the Capitol insurrection of Jan 6. — and the widespread revulsion in its wake — would lance the boil of extremism, they were clearly wrong. 

The toxins that fueled that event are still present in the American political bloodstream.

“I think we need to be really careful. There is a lot of potential for violence,” said Paul Becker, an associate professor at the University of Dayton and an expert on hate crimes and extremism. “These groups are becoming more and more confrontational.”

He also noted that although January’s insurrectionists failed in their aim of keeping Trump in power, this did not necessarily mean they had been permanently vanquished.

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“They were not successful in achieving their ultimate goal, but on the other hand they were able to enter the U.S. Capitol. They didn’t achieve what they wanted, but they did something that hasn’t been done before,” Becker said.

It can be too easy to throw all acts of extremist violence into one basket. 

The Capitol insurrectionists included the members of organized, far-right groups, whereas the alleged Atlanta shooter, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, apparently acted alone.

There has been much debate over Long’s motivations. Some argue that his targeting of Asian spas is prima facie evidence of racial animus, while others contend that his actions may have been fueled by sexual addiction. 

One acquaintance of Long’s on Thursday told The New York Times that the alleged shooter had spoken about being seemingly unable to stop going to massage parlors for sex. The acquaintance characterized Long as being in the grip of “religious mania.”

Whatever the exact dynamics in Long’s case, however, there is no question that prejudicial attacks on Asian Americans have been on the increase. 

NBC News has reported that there were 3,800 incidents of reported anti-Asian bias reported over the past year. In New York City alone, the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans reported to the police department rose to 28 in 2020 from just three the year before, according to the Times.

President Trump’s rhetoric about the coronavirus — which he often terms the “China virus” — seems likely to have played a role. Trump used the phrase as recently as March 10, when he released a statement seeking credit for COVID-19 vaccinations.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiSenators scramble to save infrastructure deal Overnight Health Care: New round of vaccine mandates | Health groups call for mandates for all health workers | Rising case count reignites debate over restrictions On The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden MORE on Thursday said that there was “no question” that Trump’s rhetoric had contributed to “elevated threats against Asian Americans.”

The atmosphere was even more tense on Capitol Hill, especially during an exchange between Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyJuan Williams: Republicans prefer Trump's fantasies over truth and facts The Hill's Morning Report - Biden renews families plan pitch; Senate prepares to bring infrastructure package to floor House Republican says colleagues' 'job' is to slow Democratic priorities MORE (R-Texas), who is white, and Rep. Grace MengGrace MengHouse Democrats include immigration priorities as they forward DHS funding bill Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer House sends anti-Asian hate bill to Biden's desk MORE (D-N.Y.), who is Asian American.

During a hearing on anti-Asian American discrimination — one that had been scheduled before the Atlanta-area mass killing — Roy began criticizing China for its conduct during the pandemic. 

Roy contended that the hearing was veering into an unacceptable “policing of rhetoric.” He also used language associated with lynching, though his exact point in that regard was opaque.

Meng responded: “Your president, and your party, and your colleagues, can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids.”

However culpable Trump may be judged for stoking the fires of racial tension throughout his tenure, the broader polarization of American society far predates him. 

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It’s not hard to see how hardcore political partisanship can drift into actual extremism when, as early as 2014, the Pew Research Center found that the proportion of Democrats who said they held a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party, and vice versa, had more than doubled over the preceding two decades.

At that time, half of people with “consistently conservative” views and more than one-third of those with “consistently liberal” views said it was important for them to live in a place where “most people share my political views.”

The interlinked issues of polarization and violent extremism — exacerbated in turn by a tide of misinformation — will not easily be untangled. 

The gun laws could perhaps be tightened, but that has long been an uphill battle in Congress. Even if it did happen, it addresses the problem at its branch rather than its root.

Becker, the University of Dayton professor, said he couldn’t “think of anything short-term” that would ameliorate the challenges, though he said “being aware of the problem” would be a first step.

Biden and Harris will travel to Georgia Friday, where they have canceled a political event in order to instead meet with local representatives of the Asian American community.

Psaki said Thursday that the president would “talk about his commitment to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hate.”

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Two months into his tenure, those forces seem as depressingly strong as ever.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage