Merrick Garland is right to prioritize domestic terrorism, but he'll need a bigger boat

Merrick Garland is right to prioritize domestic terrorism, but he'll need a bigger boat
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In the blockbuster movie “Jaws,” the police chief of Amity Island glimpses the shark from a fishing boat. Stunned, he backs into the cabin and tells the captain, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

That scene came to mind during Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandBudget tasks DOJ with turnaround of policing, voting rights, hate crimes Progressive group ramps up pressure on Justice Breyer to retire The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings MORE’s confirmation hearing to be attorney general, where he vowed to make domestic extremism a priority, including investigating what causes it and “where this is coming from.” I hope Garland realizes that he is going to need a really, really big boat.           

So far, more than 250 persons have been arrested, criminally charged or identified as suspects in the attack on the Capitol. They represent only the lowest-hanging fruit, not least because photographs and videos provided courtroom-ready evidence. But like a dorsal fin cutting through the ocean, these right-wing insurgents may represent only a small part of a dangerous nationwide network.


Left-wing violent extremism is a problem, but it pales in comparison to right-wing violence. In 2019 and in the first eight months of 2020, right wing extremists accounted for two-thirds of all domestic and international terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. 

In recent years, a right-wing white supremacist gunned down nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina; an anti-Semitic extremist killed eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh; an anti-immigrant extremist massacred 23 people between the ages of 15 and 90 at an El Paso Walmart, and the list goes on.

The Capitol attack suggests that right-wing extremists have broader support than anyone thought. Those arrested in connection with the Capitol attack were from many walks of American life, from an Olympic gold medal swimmer to retired and off-duty policemen. One in five of those charged had apparently served in the military. Some 27 percent of the insurgents arrested on or after the Jan. 6 attack were from white-collar occupations, such as lawyers, doctors and architects.          

The military knows that white supremacy is a problem in its ranks but hasn’t figured out how to deal with it. White supremacists have infiltrated law enforcement agencies in every region of the country, according to a recent report by Michael German, a former FBI agent who studies the law enforcement response to right-wing extremists.                  

Scary thought? Paramilitary groups with high-powered weapons and sophisticated tactics recruit and draw support from election deniers (according to one poll, three-quarters of Republicans believe that President BidenJoe BidenIRS to roll out payments for ,000 child tax credit in July Capitol Police told not to use most aggressive tactics in riot response, report finds Biden to accompany first lady to appointment for 'common medical procedure' MORE did not fairly win the election). It doesn’t help that former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to move ahead with billion UAE weapons sale approved by Trump Fox News hires high-profile defense team in Dominion defamation lawsuit Associate indicted in Gaetz scandal cooperating with DOJ: report MORE and some senior Republicans are still explicitly or implicitly encouraging election denial. Recently, House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Republican House campaign arm rakes in .7 million in first quarter The Hill's Morning Report - Biden seeks expanded government, tax hikes MORE (R-La.) refused in a national television interview to acknowledge that Biden had fairly won the election. Election denial is oxygen to right-wing extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and their supporters.     


That’s why right-wing domestic extremism is not just a law enforcement problem to be dealt with by criminal prosecutions, as important a tool as those are. It requires a highly coordinated, well-funded, national cross-governmental initiative that addresses the problem in agencies such as the Defense Department and in state and local police forces, hardens potential targets and – this could be the toughest part – finds ways to thoroughly discredit election denial.

The United States has been fortunate even in its worst disasters, as counterintuitive as that may sound. The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were out to sea when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the incredibly brave passengers on Flight 93 saved the Capitol from destruction on 9/11. This year, but for alert and courageous members of the Capitol Police, right-wing extremists might have killed Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePelosi says she would have put up a fight against Capitol mob: 'I'm a street fighter' Trump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Biden's policies are playing into Trump's hands MORE and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi says she would have put up a fight against Capitol mob: 'I'm a street fighter' Biden to address Congress on April 28 NY House Democrats demand repeal of SALT cap MORE (D-Calif.).

A broad national effort, akin to the fight against foreign terrorism after 9/11, must be undertaken. Otherwise, when the next domestic right-wing extremist attack occurs, we may not be as fortunate.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer in New York City and a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.”  Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.