Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor and 2020 presidential candidate, released his proposal to combat domestic terrorism in a Medium post on Tuesday — and it could kick off a heated debate among Democrats about how to punish such crimes in the United States.
“An Action Plan to Combat the National Threat Posed by Hate and the Gun Lobby,” the first treatment of its kind during this election cycle, comes just days after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas — the latter allegedly animated by racism — which killed at least 31 people in total.
The mayor’s suggestions are many and range from the highly specific to the aspirational. While he labels them differently, it appears his ideas really break down into three main categories:
- Invest more resources into solving the problem.
- Push to end the spread of violent extremism online.
- Get Congress to pass gun control legislation.
Current polls show that Buttigieg likely won’t occupy the Oval Office starting in January 2021. But on the off-chance he does, he will struggle to meet many of the lofty goals he sets forth in his proposal. For example, a Republican-led Senate — with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the helm — is unlikely to pass any strong gun control laws.
Still, the mayor hits on some key questions in the domestic terrorism debate. Should an American be tried as a terrorist after a mass killing, or tried for murder and/or a hate crime instead? How much funding do US government agencies need to deal with domestic terrorists, and which ones should get the money? And is there really even a distinction between a domestic terrorist and an “international” terrorist anymore, given the borderless nature and sophistication of online communications?
Buttigieg’s plan, then, serves best as a conversation starter among Democrats about how to deal with extremism in general and white nationalism in particular — and it’s a solid start.
Buttigieg’s plan to combat domestic terrorism
Buttigieg’s proposal includes three sections: 1) policy action, 2) political action, and 3) civic action. Those are quite vague, so for ease of understanding, I’ve broken out the proposal into its three main ideas.
Let’s take each in turn.
1) Invest more resources into solving the problem
Buttigieg makes clear that he wants to spend more federal dollars to combat homegrown extremism. “[W]e must dedicate $1 billion to ensure that law enforcement across all agencies and all levels have sufficient resources to counter the growing tide of white nationalist violence,” he writes.
The reason for that high dollar amount, he argues, is in part because the Trump administration has cut funding for combating extremists while far-right radicals are on the rise throughout the country.
There’s no question the Trump administration has not spent enough money to stem extremism in general and white extremism in particular. In June 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revoked an Obama-awarded $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, one of the few groups devoted to helping people leave white supremacist communities.
That was indicative of a larger trend: Trump’s DHS cut funding for anti-extremist groups from $21 million in President Obama’s last year to just $3 million for 2017. That’s well below the $100 million the Homeland Security Advisory Council recommended the department spend on combating extremism in 2016.
Buttigieg wants to rectify that. His $1 billion figure means he’d spend about 10 times the advised amount, though he would spread it around to multiple federal agencies and even local leaders. A RAND study this year, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, found “major gaps in national terrorism prevention efforts,” mainly due to a lack of money and specific focus on the problems at hand.
Around $1 billion more would help solve that dilemma, especially when it comes to hiring more staffers to track hate both online and in real life.
Meanwhile, white nationalist violence is ascendant. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank, released a report last year showing that far-right terrorist attacks more than quadrupled between 2016 and 2017. The shooting in El Paso against the Latinx community this past week and on a Pittsburgh synagogue last year are just some of the most recent high-profile examples.
What’s more, links between US white nationalists and foreigners are starting to creep up. For example, some American extremists banned from Facebook have found refuge on a Russian site, engaging with like-minded people over there. Buttigieg wants US counterterrorism officials to investigate potential nefarious international connections regarding extremist ideologies.
All of this is clearly an emergency in the mayor’s eyes — hence why he wants to spend so much money and attention on it from the get-go.
2) Push to end the spread of violent extremism online
The internet has proven a valuable tool for extremists to connect and recruit. Whether it’s white nationalists on 8chan or some incels on LoveShy, they are able to find each other, interact, and even build a community. Faraway groups with their own radical ideas, like ISIS and al-Qaeda, can use online methods to inspire Americans to kill in the US.
It’s no surprise, then, that Buttigieg has a section of his plan devoted to stopping the spread of online extremism. The problem is that his proposal is pretty threadbare.
It breaks down into two components: 1) “Work with social media and other online platforms to identify and limit the spread of hateful ideology,” and 2) “Name and shame online platforms and other companies that refuse to take steps to curb use by hate groups.”
Those are easier said than done. Twitter users, for example, have long called for the site to ban neo-Nazis and other extremists who use the platform, but they’re still numerous due to the social media company dragging its feet. Facebook, at least, has started to forbid white nationalist content.
Perhaps a sustained “name and shame” campaign, as Buttigieg proposes, would increase the pressure on those companies to ban even more extremist content. But while it may be a good idea, it would also likely increase tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley, as well as open up the president to criticism that he’s interfering in private business.
That may be a price worth paying to stop the spread of radical materials online, though.
3) Get Congress to pass gun control legislation
In an opening statement before unveiling his plan, the Navy veteran writes that weapons like those he carried in the Afghanistan War shouldn’t be in the hands of everyday people. “I want to be able to look back on this moment and tell my children that we brought people together to deliver gun safety,” says Buttigieg. “I want my children to be able to go to the mall with their grandmother, or to school, or to the movies, without living in fear.”
Clearly Buttigieg wants more gun control in America. That’s fair, as data shows that the massive number of guns in the US is one of the leading factors — if not the leading factor — for why there are so many mass killings in the country.
Here’s most of what the mayor proposes in his plan on gun-related legislation:
- “Make background checks universal and close the loopholes that allow dangerous individuals to acquire and keep guns.”
- “Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
- “Support red flag laws that disarm domestic abusers.”
- “Establish a nationwide gun licensing system.”
- “Resume federal funding for gun violence research.”
But a President Buttigieg would likely run into a major problem to do any of this: a GOP-led Senate. Buttigieg would need Congress to pass laws to make any of his ideas a reality on gun control. McConnell, however, isn’t even taking up gun control legislation passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives right now, and he’d be unlikely to in the future.
McConnell could single-handedly thwart most of Buttigieg’s gun control dreams, especially those that need congressional approval, which means the mayor’s comprehensive list is more of a wish list than a feasible policy plan.
Even Buttigieg seems to realize this. “After foreign terrorist attacks, airport travelers have to take off their shoes. After three mass shootings in a single week, Congress takes off for recess,” he wrote in his Medium post.
What Buttigieg misses
By and large, most experts I spoke to about Buttigieg’s plan say it’s fine. It hits a lot of main areas related to the extremism and gun control debates, and he linked those two issues together.
There are two notable gaps, though, experts say.
First, he doesn’t discuss how a shooter should be punished: Should the assailant be tried as a “domestic terrorist,” depending on the victims, or as a hate crime perpetrator? That is a hotly debated question not just among Democrats but among federal law enforcement.
There is no federal law criminalizing “domestic terrorism” in the US, as most laws relate to international terrorism, meaning there has to be some foreign connection involved. Timothy McVeigh, who committed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was charged with murder, not a terrorist charge of any kind.
That’s why the El Paso shooter, who seemingly killed Latinx people solely because of their background, won’t face terrorism charges (he’ll likely get murder or hate crime charges).
Some experts aren’t okay with this situation. Former senior Justice Department official Mary McCord called that issue a “moral equivalency” problem in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Sunday. Basically, US law enforcement just won’t prosecute an American committing a terrorist act — even if there’s racist intent — with the same attention and federal resources.
“Americans tend to equate terrorism with Islamic extremism and, in today’s polarized environment, with Muslims. But they don’t tend to associate white supremacist violence with terrorism, and they should,” McCord continued. “You can’t prevent what you don’t understand.”
What’s more, it’s hard for law enforcement to arrest a US citizen solely for planning a terrorist-like act before the strike because there are no “domestic terrorism” laws on the books. By contrast, it’s much easier to handcuff a foreigner for preparing an assault on America.
Buttigieg noted that complication in his Medium post. “More than 70% of international terrorism arrests occur before violence takes place,” he wrote. “With domestic terrorism, the opposite is true: 72% of arrests occur after a violent act.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is expected to advocate for prosecuting someone like the El Paso shooter as a “domestic terrorist,” multiple Democratic presidential campaign staffers told me. That stance would put her in contrast to Buttigieg on this issue and potentially lead to a change in US policy if elected.
Farah Pandith, who wrote a book about countering violent extremism titled How We Win, told me there was a second issue with Buttigieg’s plan: The distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” terrorist doesn’t really exist anymore.
“Nothing is domestic,” she told me. “Ideas are linked around the world.”
The attack on a mosque in New Zealand last March has proved a touchstone for white nationalists since it took place. The El Paso shooter mentioned his “support” for that assault in his manifesto released minutes before opening fire. It’s indicative of how one of the main white nationalist ideas — that white people are being replaced — is becoming more commonplace around the world.
Instead of focusing on the issue as just a “domestic” problem, then, Pandith recommends Buttigieg take a more global approach. Felt grievances — like that of replacement — should be combated the world over, and the mayor should consider asking corporations and philanthropical organizations to put more resources into the fight, not just social media giants and platforms.
“Government should bring in experts and ideas from all kinds of unexpected places to think about all the touchpoints to combat the ‘us versus them’ ideology,” she continued.
The question now is if leading Democratic candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will offer their own visions to stop the domestic terrorism issue. If they do, they have a good starting point with Buttigieg’s work.
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