Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was one of many warnings — but are we listening now?

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was one of many warnings — but are we listening now?
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Two years ago today, a white supremacist terrorist armed with an assault rifle, several handguns and a depraved hatred of Jews stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on a sabbath morning and gunned down 11 worshippers in cold blood. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

The Pittsburgh attacker was motivated by a hatred of Jews, but his attack was part of a rising tide of overall violent white supremacism that now sweeps across America. Like a contagious virus, white supremacism does not discriminate. It targets Blacks, Jews and all others whose very existence is regarded as a threat to a racist world order.

We urge the president, whoever that may be on Jan. 21, 2021, to confront and combat the hate and the domestic-based violent extremism it fuels.

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The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been sounding the alarm about this new tide of violent white supremacism in this country for several years. In fact, ADL released a report a week before the Pittsburgh attack in 2018 that noted far-right extremists and the so-called “alt right” had dramatically stepped up their efforts on social media to attack and intimidate Jews in the year since a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and in the run-up to the midterm election.

The events in Charlottesville in 2017 should have been a loud wake-up call. Indeed, a number of warning signs presaged the Pittsburgh massacre, and other white supremacist terror attacks have followed, including shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Poway, Calif. In the year following the Pittsburgh shooting, at least 12 white supremacists were arrested for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community in particular.

But, the threat picture gets worse.

In reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the endless shootings of unarmed Black men and women and the demonstrations that have followed, self-appointed armed militia and vigilantes feel emboldened to take to the streets and add to the tension and violence. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-government militias direct their anger against state officials who do no more than exercise their lawful authority to impose public health restrictions to save lives. This threat, too, is real, not imagined. Three weeks ago, federal and Michigan state authorities arrested 13 people associated with a militia cell that was plotting to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan GOP governor hopeful says he would support state abortion ban: recording Democratic senator requests tech company policies on extremist content Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight MORE simply for her actions to combat the COVID-19 virus. On top of all this is the tense environment in the days before the presidential election, in which some on the far-right threaten to show up as “poll watchers” on Election Day.

In the face of all this, our president has continually sent messages that seemingly provide rhetorical aid and comfort to these groups. They all hear the dog whistle — such as when he told a certain far-right group during the first presidential debate to “stand back and stand by” for Election Day.

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White supremacists and other extremists are not only energized, they feel emboldened and encouraged to crawl out from under their rocks and express their hate in the open. That was the most shocking thing about Charlottesville: This nation fought a worldwide war to defeat Nazism; during the 1950s and '60s, Americans, black and white, put their lives on the line to confront the Ku Klux Klan. To see in the year 2017 both forms of white supremacism walking the streets of an American city, openly and notoriously proclaiming themselves as such, should have been a call to action for all of us.

Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office in 2021 or who controls Congress, it is imperative that our government come together to confront domestic-based violent extremism. There are many steps the federal government can take — many of which have already been identified by Congress, advisory committees, and current and past administrations.

First, funding must be restored and expanded to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) units focused on domestic terrorism. The DHS Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) team specializing in domestic terrorism was disbanded under the current administration, and the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) office was drastically reduced and minimized — no longer reporting to the DHS secretary.

In 2016, the Homeland Security Advisory Committee advised that a budget of $100 million per year would be necessary to address the threat. Yet, starting in the 2017 fiscal year, the administration failed to request further funds for grants, staffing or other program resources. The budget for TVTP went from $21.5 million to $2.6 million and then to $2.3 million. In 2020 some funding was restored, including $10 million in TVTP grants, but we are nowhere near the $100 million recommended over four years ago and what ADL believes is now a $150 million need.

Other measures include issuing an Executive Order compelling departments and agencies to create a strategy to prevent and counter domestic terrorism within 60 days of an executive order being issued, and to provide reports on how resources will be aligned to the lethality of threats, begin public reporting on domestic terrorism as is already required by law, and work with Congress to swiftly pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (DTPA).

Above all else, our national leaders must, through their own words and deeds, put this nation back on the path toward recompilation and a more perfect American union.

In our judgment, three of the finest examples of presidential leadership in modern times were President Obama’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” as he eulogized the pastor killed in the Charleston terrorist attack in 2015, President George W. Bush’s words at the Islamic Center of Washington “Islam is Peace” six days after 9/11, and his father’s resolute rejection of David Duke as a Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana in 1991.

Leaders who command the national stage actually do have the ability to lead and to set a climate for the nation.

Leaders who refuse to condemn hate and bigotry lower the bar for all the rest of us, make the previously deplorable acceptable, and — for the dangerous few who lurk among us — make violence inevitable.

Jeh Johnson is the former Secretary of Homeland Security, where he served from 2013 to 2017.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and national director of the ADL (Anti-Defamation League).