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Why playing the long game is necessary to address the Capitol insurrection

Why playing the long game is necessary to address the Capitol insurrection
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How should we address the attempted insurrection, or auto-golpe, apparently directed by President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE? The reaction from official Washington ranged from shock and anger to muted disappointment. Meanwhile, far-right groups have largely celebrated the assault on the Capitol, which they see as a win. Without clear and unanimous condemnation, many people want an immediate fix. But solving this problem requires playing the long game.   

That’s not to say there aren’t important things to do in the short term. The president must face consequences. Those who breached the Capitol must be arrested and face their day in court. The FBI and others must continue to investigate the degree to which the insurrection was planned, and by whom. And perhaps most importantly, with the world watching, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Olympics, climate on the agenda for Biden meeting with Japanese PM Boehner on Afghanistan: 'It's time to pull out the troops' MORE and Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal after pushback Scalise carries a milk carton saying Harris is 'missing' at the border Harris to visit Mexico and Guatemala 'soon' MORE must be inaugurated safely.    

But, none of these actions will fix two interrelated problems. The first is that the U.S. government has failed to take seriously the threat of far-right extremism. When George Bush left office in 2008 there were 149 domestic anti-government extremist groups operating in the country. A year later, during Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden can make history on nuclear arms reductions Biden has nearly 90-point approval gap between Democrats, Republicans: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring MORE’s first term, the number more than tripled, to 512.  By 2012, the number had grown to 1,360.     

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Yet in 2009, when Department of Homeland Security (DHS) analyst Daryl Johnson wrote an intelligence report for law enforcement agencies warning that right-wing extremists were recruiting veterans to their ranks, he caused a firestorm. Republicans expressed outrage that right-wing views were being slandered. Others piled on, insisting that veterans were owed an apology. The American Legion said the report unfairly stereotyped veterans as “disgruntled.”  The head of DHS at the time, Janet Napolitano, apologized, rescinded the report and disbanded Johnson’s office. 

Things didn’t get any better under the Trump administration. DHS employees complained about a dogged focus on the border. And, when higher-ups finally asked agents to turn their attention to domestic extremists, they were asked to focus on antifa, a loose movement of anti-fascist groups who have committed zero murders in the past 25 years.    

The second problem is the pervasiveness of right-wing disinformation. This disinformation has gained traction in white evangelical churches, police forces, mayor’s offices, state legislatures, and in Congress. The disinformation comes in different forms. Much of it is tied to the online movement QAnon — the biggest purveyor of conspiracy theories today. Although QAnon promotes conspiracies about a variety of topics (e.g. vaccines, “Lizard people,” the 2020 election), it’s meta-narrative is a reinterpretation of blood libel, an anti-Semitic conspiracy that surfaced in the Middle Ages and falsely claimed that Jews ritually drank the blood of Christian children. QAnon reinterpreted the theory, using coded and contemporary language. Jews became Democrats who, instead of drinking the blood of children in religious rituals, started a child sex-trafficking ring.   

The broad appeal of QAnon means the democratic consensus is breaking apart. You can’t have a functioning government if ordinary Republicans believe that Democrats are a sinister, existential threat rather than a legitimate political competitor.   

To tackle these problems, government officials at all levels must strengthen government capacity to police far-right extremism and dismantle, and then limit, disinformation. While indications suggest the FBI has successfully tracked far-right extremists, DHS remains hobbled. And there’s evidence that the intelligence the FBI does collect isn’t making its way to local law enforcement.  In the wake of the Capitol breach, the head of the Capitol Police said he never received any intelligence that there were plans to take the building. A few days later, the FBI announced that it had such intelligence. And, even after intelligence is shared, the FBI may need to get involved. A former official with the Department of Justice argues, for example, that in extreme cases, such as the events of Jan. 6, the FBI should “quarterback a coordinated federal response.”     

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The FBI also needs to train state and local police officers to identify and expel extremists in their ranks. Here, too, there’s a lot of work to be done. In the days before the Capitol breach, Molly Conger, a citizen journalist who made her name covering the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., and now tracks down and exposes right-wing extremists, informed the police department for Prince William County, Va., that one of its officers was espousing violence against government officials on his Parler account. While Conger’s work is vital, it really shouldn’t be up to citizen journalists to play this role. Conger claims it took her about 10 minutes to identify the man she saw on Parler as a police officer, begging the question: How did the officer’s views go unnoticed by his supervisors and colleagues?  

Finally, Congress must find ways to regulate social media, balancing concerns for free speech with the equally legitimate concerns to prevent people from using these sites to threaten, intimidate or otherwise bully people. The Supreme Court has ruled that threats of violence are not protected forms of speech. But that hasn’t stopped social media, which has tended to operate like a frontier where rough "justice" is just part of the terrain. 

The canary in the coal mine should have been Gamergate. In 2014, right-wing trolls went after female gamers in real time, posting nude pictures of them, sharing their addresses, threatening to rape them, and promising other painful humiliations. Twitter and Facebook tightened some of their regulations in the aftermath, but they clearly did not do enough to keep people from using threats of violence on their platforms or spreading misinformation that encourages violence. It is now up to Congress and/or attorneys general in all 50 states to really regulate these platforms.   

Our democracy survived the events of Jan. 6, but just barely. Its long-term survival requires years of systematic repairs we’ve put off for too long.     

Carolyn Gallaher is associate dean for faculty affairs at American University’s School of International Service. Her research focuses on organized violence by non-state actors and urban politics. She is the author of “On the Fault Line: Race, Class, and the American Patriot Movement” (2003) and “Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-accord Northern Ireland” (2007).