Jan. 6 and the Americanization of radicalized violent extremism
After 9/11, the conventional wisdom in America was that the threat of violent extremism came from international Islamic jihadists. The emergence of the so-called Islamic State, with its sponsorship of attacks in European cities and use of social media to attract recruits from Europe and the U.S. reinforced that view of what the threat was to our country and where it came from.
But on Jan. 6, 2021, a radicalized mob, fueled by a deliberate campaign of lies by the sitting president and some Members of Congress, attacked the U.S. Capitol building and violently tried to stop the certification of a demonstrably free and fair election. Those who attacked the Capitol Jan. 6 were not Muslims from some distant land; they were, instead, overwhelmingly white, male, Christian Americans.
Radicalized violent extremism was clearly no longer somewhere else; it was in and of America.
During subsequent congressional testimony, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that law enforcement agencies’ concerns about the terrorist threat to America had been changing. While the FBI and the Intelligence Community still track and seek to defeat international terrorism directed at the U.S., Wray noted “the problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country,” adding that domestic terrorism investigations have doubled since 2017 and arrests of racially motivated extremists have almost tripled.
An Anti-defamation League (ADL) 2017 report on domestic terrorism in the U.S. assessed that “right-wing” extremist terrorism was a growing, but underreported, problem. The ADL report identified 150 domestic terrorist incidents during the period 1993–2017 in which right-wing extremists killed 255 people and injured over 600. Those involved were about evenly divided between white supremacists and anti-government extremists.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported in 2020 that there were many more incidents of “far-right terrorism” in the U.S. than of terrorism from groups or individuals associated with either the far-left or Islamic extremists, with the total number of right-wing attacks having grown significantly in the past six years. A 2021 RAND report said senior law enforcement officials have described domestic violent extremism, “particularly violent White extremism, as the greatest threat facing the country.”
Before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the 2020 election results, perpetrators of extreme right-wing violence generally shared common threads. They were individuals who felt aggrieved and powerless, blamed other groups or the government, and had their views reinforced in groups or on social media, which increasingly networks those inclined to extremist views and violence. They also tended to be less educated, younger, male and White, although some anti-government groups have people of color as members.
Rioters arrested for attacking the Capitol Jan. 6, however, were different. According to a 2021 University of Chicago study, those involved were generally older, better educated, and more professional than right-wing protesters the study’s authors had interviewed previously. They came from 44 states, many from counties that voted for Biden and were becoming less white. Only 12 percent of the arrested Jan. 6 rioters had links to existing right-wing groups.
With the Jan. 6 attack, extremist violence moved from the right-wing fringes closer to the conservative mainstream.
Donald Trump was responsible for this shift. The University of Chicago study, based on reviews of publicly available documents assessed that Trump energized his followers with his lies about the “stolen election,” called them to Washington, and then directed them to the Capitol, citing as examples statements by arrestees from California, Texas, Kentucky and Arizona.
Extremist violence, like Colorado grass fires, can flare up quickly, with devastating consequences — and the tinder for more politically motivated extremist violence exists today.
Trump, for example, has demonstrated no qualms about extra-legal actions for political purposes. Additionally, Trump, some Republican members of the House and Senate, and Republican state-level officials, such as in Wisconsin and Arizona, are promoting political grievances with an ongoing campaign of lies about the 2020 elections. Further, Trump’s followers now have both martyrs and a climatic event (Jan. 6) to galvanize more mass action. And recent polls suggest that Americans are divided over the Jan. 6 attack and Trump’s role in the riot.
If ignored or left unaddressed, the Jan. 6 attack on a fundamental process of American democratic governance risks being repeated on a larger and more violent scale.
The work of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol is, therefore, particularly important for the future of American democracy. The American people need to know the details of how the mob came to the Capitol, how the lies about the 2020 election were formulated, spread, and paid for, and what actions sitting government officials — who took an oath to defend the Constitution, not Trump — did to undermine the electoral process before and after the election.
Americans and their political leaders like to think of America as being exceptional and a model for others to emulate, but there was nothing exceptional in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol; using violence to overturn an election is an all-too-common occurrence in poorly governed countries around the globe.
It would be exceptional, however, for America’s Democratic and Republican leaders to use a detailed and thorough Select Committee report on the attack and the efforts to overturn the 2020 election to defend America’s constitutional order. This could be done by putting in place legal guardrails to prevent future efforts to undo an election, beginning a process of de-polarizing American politics, and making clear the American way of governance is through the ballot, not guns or violence.
That is the least the Founders of America’s constitutional republic would expect of today’s generation of political leaders — and what today’s Americans should demand.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
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