Capitol insurrection unmasks the real terrorist next door
We have ignored too long the right-wing domestic threats we face
OUR FEDERAL LAW ENFORCEMENT and criminal justice agencies have been dropping the ball on domestic terrorism. They simply have not seen the terrorists for what they are. At play are deeply rooted cognitive racial biases and Donald Trump’s determined destruction of the rule of law.
The public safety failures at the US Capitol on January 6 finally have roused the FBI and other federal agencies. Miami City Police Chief Jorge Colina told the New York Times on January 13 that he participated in a conference call with FBI director Christopher Wray and others. “It kind of shook everyone up, you know, seeing what happened at the Capitol. It gives you a terrible feeling of uneasiness, and so, they’re concerned with that,” he said. “They’re concerned with the mindset of, ‘Are we safe here in this country?’”
Trump has weakened federal law agencies with his systematic trashing of their leaders, missions, and morale. Trump’s malign influence showed up in the ethically flawed judgments leading up to the insurrection. The claim of the former Capitol Police chief that he did not have “intelligence” forecasting violence sounded delusional; anyone on the planet with access to a television, radio, or computer knew that the action in the US capital likely would be armed and violent.
The president had called gleefully for it to be “wild,” among his many other incitements. Facts revealed in news reports indicate that concerns about “optics” stayed the hands of the Capitol’s security managers and the Department of the Army, which controls the DC National Guard and is responsible for calling up Guard units from other states.
Contrast that image to those of January 6, when we saw domestic terrorists strolling freely about the corridors of democracy while they murdered and mauled police and terrorized members of Congress into hiding, putting many in legitimate fear for their lives. For several crucial hours federal agencies abandoned the Capitol and members of Congress and staffs to the terrorists. Only an overwhelmed line of courageous Capitol officers prevented possible assassinations. A small but disturbingly growing number of allegations place active duty police personnel in the mob. They suggest complicity before and during the assault on the part of some far-right congressional staff, members of Congress, and Capitol police officers.
As federal agencies react to the shock described by Chief Colina, evidence revealed at federal arraignments shows terrorist intent to kill and kidnap members of Congress. Police officer Daniel Hodges was on that thin blue line inside the Capitol. Asked why he did not use his firearm, he told the Washington Post, “I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day. And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.” Many black and Latino Americans will be left to wonder whether officers would have made the same calculation had the enemy had brown skin.
Official statements continue to refer to the groups as “demonstrators” and “extremists.” They stop short of using the term “terrorists.” But here is the FBI’s definition of domestic terror: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” If this definition does not include the activities we have seen in the recent killings, bombings, and armed building takeovers, then nothing fits. Yet, as the Washington Post reported on January 15, “Dozens of people on a terrorist watch list were in Washington for pro-Trump events January.6, a day that ended in a chaotic crime rampage when a violent mob stormed the US Capitol, according to people familiar with evidence gathered in the FBI’s investigation.” They were watched, perhaps, but not deterred.
A subset of white people, mostly men, has become radicalized under our noses. Massachusetts is not immune. Suzanne Ianni, a Natick town meeting member, and Mark Sahady of Malden have been charged with federal crimes for their alleged participation in the rioting inside the Capitol; they are leaders of the anti-gay organization Happy Fun America. The pair were seen in photograph standing side by side inside the Capitol during the riots. They helped organize 11 busloads of participants from Massachusetts to attend the Washington rally to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Groups involved in the rioting are known by varying names, from Proud Boys to Happy Fun America. But all shared one label on January 6: domestic terrorist. They all crossed state lines to foment and participate in insurrection.
As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “You can’t argue with people who have their own separate made-up set of facts. You can’t have an argument with people who are deranged by the euphoric rage of what Erich Fromm called group narcissism — the thoughtless roar of those who believe their superior group is being polluted by alien groups.”
A hypothesis shared by researchers and by thoughtful citizens and cops is that systemic racism distorts perception of who is a terrorist. It’s easy for American minds of every ethnicity to associate black, Arab, or Latino faces with wrongdoing. We all use mental shortcuts that we have picked up from earliest childhood. Racism is such a virulent and pervasive cultural force that one need not have been raised in a home in which racist words and attitudes were part of child-rearing in order to possess cognitive biases – biases that exit beneath consciousness – such as racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. For public safety and law enforcement officials to respond to these conclusions by saying, “we’re not racist” is to miss the point.
After 9/11, the CIA sent personnel through a new training regimen at the agency’s Kent School for Intelligence Analysis to learn about their cognitive biases. After-action reviews of what they missed leading up to the attack revealed that cognitive biases distorted staff interpretations of the intelligence that might have signaled what was coming. Trump’s malignity and the effects of cognitive racial bias are not excuses.
January 6 pulled back the veil on domestic terrorism. John Miller, the New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, told the Police Executive Research Forum, “Remember that we’re dealing with Americans on American soil in a free country, where unpopular speech is protected. And yet we can’t afford to let acts of violence happen because we’re not paying close enough attention. That sounds like a very difficult task, and it’s going to be. But it’s not a matter of choice anymore.”
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser framed the issue in the Washington Post of January 13, “Trumpism is not dead and it won’t die on January 20. In my view, we could be in for a very dangerous time in our country if we don’t have leaders who speak up.”Minnesota Gov. Tim Waltz is an ongoing target for white domestic terror. In the same Post report, he said, “This is going to be a reclamation project, and it’s going to be on several fronts…the longer-term challenge is convincing Americans to turn away from the partisan and false propaganda that’s poisoning where we are at, and that’s going to take quite a while.”
Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.