Progressives Need to Resist the Domestic “War on Terror”

The Squad and other progressives voted this week to ramp up the “war on terror” here at home. Right now, they might find it politically convenient to prop up draconian national security measures — but at some point, they're going to have to take a stand.

Federal officers attempt to disperse racial justice protesters in Portland, Oregon, July 30, 2020. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

The post-9/11 “war on terror” was a disaster for Muslims and immigrant communities in the United States. Patriotic, law-abiding Muslim Americans were treated as foreign enemies and hundreds of immigrants were rounded up, detained, and deported. Americans’ constitutional rights were trampled while a sprawling system of mass surveillance took shape. Those brave enough to shine a light on its abuses were, at best, spied on and treated as criminals or, at worst, hounded into the poorhouse and even imprisoned and tortured. The only minor saving grace was that, technically, this “war” was never waged officially within the United States, where it could’ve led to even more alarmingly authoritarian outcomes.

That now seems to be changing under the Biden administration, which, ever since last year’s Capitol riot, has bit by bit ramped up a burgeoning domestic war on terror aimed at criminals and dissidents at home. The latest escalation in this budding campaign cleared the House on Thursday — and, horrifyingly, received the wholehearted backing of the congressional left.

Fast and Furious Bill Passage

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022 sailed through the House on a strict party-line vote, with not a single Democrat voting against and only one Republican, Illinois representative Adam Kinzinger, voting in its favor. Opposition to the bill was presumably considered politically toxic on the Left, as it was sold as a response to the racist mass murder committed in Buffalo last week, which is presumably why every single member of the “Squad” voted for it.

The legislation takes a tack similar to previous domestic anti-terrorism bills, making incremental additions to the terror-fighting strategy of US security apparatuses. The focus of this strategy now appears to be aimed at ostensibly homegrown extremists. The bill does not opt for the kind of sweeping overhaul we saw after the September 11 attacks.

The bill creates domestic terrorism offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Justice Department, and the FBI. These offices are all set to sunset in a decade. The heads of all three agencies must regularly issue a joint report on domestic terrorism threats, incidents, and arrests and prosecutions. The offices will direct their resources toward the threat categories with the highest number of instances. The bill also requires that they review and investigate hate crime charges with an eye on redefining or connecting them to domestic terror incidents.

The most defensible part of the bill is a section authorizing an interagency task force to “analyze and combat” white-supremacist infiltration of the armed forces and federal law enforcement. The effectiveness of this directive, however, remains to be seen. Although the bill’s language uses the term “combat,” it fails to spell out what this means. Its only specific details are in regard to the reports that federal agencies will be required to submit.

If the bill passes, it will represent at least some progress on a very serious and largely unaddressed problem. On the other hand, it also exposes the contradictory nature of progressives’, particularly the Squad’s, position on matters of civil liberties.

Still a Bad Idea

Joe Biden’s fledgling domestic war on terror has proven a tricky matter for left-wing lawmakers to navigate. The Left’s historical opposition to bigotry of all kinds made it somewhat less fraught for elected progressives to push back against the original “war on terror,” given its tendency to demonize and target Muslims and immigrants.

But ever since the national security state shifted its public-facing rhetoric around terrorism from Islamic extremists to far-right ones — and with progressives now tending to frame issues around the concept of “white supremacy” more and more — the congressional left has become increasingly quiet on the issue. After all, what progressive wants to look like they’re soft on literal Nazis?

But there are good reasons they should push back. For one, the leading progressive concerns about the license granted to the state by the original war on terror remain with this version of the bill. The powers authorized by this legislation can easily be turned on anyone — not simply the odious groups that are invoked for the bill’s passage.

The Biden administration’s official domestic counterterrorism strategy explicitly “makes no distinction based on political views” and name-checks supposed domestic terrorists motivated by a “range of ideologies,” including animal rights, environmentalism, anarchists, and anti-capitalists. In practice, the FBI has already imprisoned one Florida anarchist over what amounted to a series of public social media posts. Domestic terrorism prosecutions have exploded since 2020, now far outnumbering cases defined as international terrorism, and many of those have been racial justice protesters that the Biden administration has continued to prosecute as terrorists.

Even if, despite all this, one believes that a Democratic administration can be trusted to responsibly pursue a domestic “war on terror,” we would do well to remember that the United States is a two-party democracy where power regularly changes hands. Are progressives happy to hand ever-growing national security powers to Donald Trump, who mobilized the DHS for a campaign of repression against the George Floyd protests? Would they be comfortable entrusting them with Ron DeSantis, who just passed yet another law attacking protest rights, this time banning pickets outside private homes? Do they trust GOP-appointed federal agencies not to fudge the numbers and steer prosecutions toward threat categories that aren’t related to the far right?

Juicing the Steroidal Security State

Beefing up law enforcement and security powers is an understandable response to horrors like Buffalo, but there’s not much evidence that the increase of these powers will succeed as measures of prevention as the bill’s sponsor claims. Attacks like this are happening on a depressingly regular basis even though the United States is already operating the largest, most expensive national security bureaucracy in its history. Such attacks have continued, even in the teeth of the country’s vast surveillance state that effectively sweeps up and stores information about the private activities of most adults. This is the very same surveillance state that has already given the FBI sweeping authority to go after whoever it defines as extremists — which it has mostly used to, again, go after racial justice activists. This is largely why only a few years ago, both leftists and liberals rejected the idea of passing a domestic terror statute in the wake of the horrific El Paso shooting.

Given the long record of the FBI and federal agencies like the DHS targeting vulnerable communities, activists, and dissidents more generally — and given the Bureau’s copious recent use of far-right extremists as informants to target left-leaning protesters — does it really make sense to believe they’ll use these new authorities as progressives intend? It’s a bit of a glaring contradiction that the same bill that treats federal law enforcement as the leading instrument against far-right extremists is also concerned with its infiltration by white supremacists.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022 is not as bad as it could have been. To some extent, it’s lucky that Biden’s domestic war on terror has so far been fairly incremental. But as more tragedies like Buffalo pile up — and as politicians continue to do nothing about the availability of guns or the root causes that drive people toward this kind of hatred and violence in the first place — pressure will build to ramp things up.

Right now, progressives like those of the Squad may find it politically easier go along with something that, judging by their past public statements and positions, they quietly know is a bad and dangerous idea. But at some point, they’re going to have to take a stand. And if they don’t, they’ll risk hurting the very communities and political movements they’re fighting for.