The rhetoric surrounding the Jan. 6 attack in Washington, D.C., has been a source of much debate. Was it a protest? Mob violence? Terrorism? Judging by what occurred, and the publicly demonstrated preparation for it, we not only witnessed the first breaching of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812 — we also witnessed an act of domestic terrorism, according to the definition of terrorism provided by the Global Terrorism Database at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).
The importance of designating this assault on the Capitol as domestic terrorism is becoming more apparent in the aftermath and investigations of the attack. By qualifying the event as mob violence, officials present an argument of a spontaneous, anarchic disorder that was not premeditated and had little direction.
Yet, the preparation and online rhetoric of various groups and individuals indicate that this assault on the Capitol Building was planned. Moreover, the argument of mob violence places President Donald Trump as a scapegoat, suggesting that he primarily shoulders responsibility for inspiring this violent behavior.
While President Trump may have served as an inspiration and is responsible for encouraging it, this event was planned before his Jan. 6 rally. The argument for mob violence also suggests that the removal of Trump, whether through the 25th Amendment, an impeachment, or democratic transition, will resolve the problem that truly inspired the violence. Unfortunately, this is untrue. The problem is unlikely to go away, but rather escalate to levels unseen previously in our history.
The U.S. suffers from a significant problem that lawmakers have been dangerously hesitant to come to terms with. It’s a serious problem with extremist groups. However, it’s not foreign-born or Islamic-based extremist groups, as have previously been central to U.S. discussions around terrorism. We have a problem with domestic extremism.
In truth, we live in a democracy with freedoms and liberties that allow for the existence of extremist thoughts and public expression of them, and we cannot change that. People are permitted to express their viewpoints and assemble to protest if they desire. It’s a hallmark of U.S. democracy.
But the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol clearly demonstrated what it looks like when extremism turns to domestic terrorism. The problem of domestic extremism in the U.S. is that our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies have been late to determine a solution to this issue.
Back in May 2019, the FBI finally admitted that domestic extremism and growing conspiracy theories from domestic groups and sources would likely be a future source of inspiration for violence. The solutions to resolve these issues cannot be reactive, but rather proactive in countering extremism.
The problem is that deradicalization and countering violent extremism programs suffer from an erroneous focus or lack of funding. Prior to the Trump administration, these programs were designed for a different target: Islamic fundamentalism in American society. Rather than embracing a need to change these programs, the Trump administration shut down programs to counter violent extremism.
Now, in the aftermath of the assault of the U.S. Capitol, we need to clarify what this event truly was and how we will resolve this problem. The assault was premeditated and fits all the elements of domestic terrorism.
While we can use either the term terrorism or domestic terrorism, the qualifier of “domestic” indicates that the threat is homegrown. The FBI disaggregates the term terrorism into international vs. domestic terrorism to indicate where the source originates.
However, as The Inquirer’s Angry Grammarian columnist noted, the U.S. government and society has a serious problem with asserting that white individuals who are extremists and commit terrorism are terrorists. Instead, our government relies on the designations of criminal and hate crimes. For example, why did the U.S. government and judicial system not prosecute Dylann Storm Roof, who murdered nine African Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church in June 2015, for domestic terrorism rather than hate crimes, murder, and weapons charges?
The importance of the domestic terrorism distinction lies in what we will do next. The end of Donald Trump’s presidency does not resolve this issue. We must recognize the extent of extremism, and our deradicalization and countering violent extremism programs must be recommenced and changed to address the real problem we have in American society.
Jeremy Backstrom, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in Widener University’s department of political science and international relations.