Few events in recent history have left as large of an impact on the American psyche as did the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th, 2021. Americans watched in terror as a key aspect of our democratic process came under assault. For many, the fear associated with that day paralleled the fear that came with the attacks on September 11, 2001. Unlike that day, however, the perpetrators weren’t some faceless terrorists from a far away land. Rather, they were everyday Americans who were disenfranchised and radicalized by an increasingly divisive system. Though many have placed the primary blame for the surge on the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, partisans on both sides have been fanning the flames of division for years.
Since then, now President Joe Biden has continually called for unity and healing, but the devil appears to be in the details.
During his inaugural address, he took note of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism,” vowing to “confront” and “defeat” it. Few people would disagree with that sentiment on face value, but how exactly does the President define those terms? Does it mean those who are actively plotting against American institutions and preparing to perpetrate violence? Or could it simply include those with dissenting opinions?
The President wasn’t specific during his speech, but we’ve since received some hints at what Biden’s dystopian “war on domestic terror” might look like. Shortly after Biden was sworn into office, former CIA director John Brennen went on MSNBC to reveal that “members of the Biden team… are now moving in laser-like fashion to try to uncover as much as they can about what looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas… and it brings together an unholy alliance, frequently, of religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians.”
His statement quickly caught the attention of many as if it were a behind the scenes look at a popular production. Of course, the vast majority of Americans don’t fall into any of these categories, but that doesn’t really matter. For years, the left have been quick to call anyone who steps outside of their box of allowable opinion a fascist, bigot, and racist. A religious extremist could simply be someone who holds a more rigid view of faith.
In case it wasn’t obvious enough, Brennen’s tag of “even libertarians” to the end of his statement illustrates that this threat isn’t coming from the most violent radicals, but from Americans who harbor political opinions that, while in the minority, is hardly outside of the mainstream. A few days later, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki more or less confirmed Brennen’s comments by announcing that President Biden instructed his Director of National Intelligence to put together a “comprehensive threat assessment” concerning domestic terrorism.
What exactly this will look like and how it will affect the civil liberties of the American people is something only time will tell. But if we are going off of the government’s track record, the issue of handling “extremism” in a productive way isn’t very promising.
All throughout the 20th century, fear of extremists and saboteurs was used time and again to justify some of the most egregious civil liberty violations.
During the first Red Scare after World War I, the DOJ carried out the “Palmer raids” to prevent leftists and anarchists from carrying out terroristic plots. After a series of bombings from radical leftists, these fears weren’t unfounded. Yet, rather than targeting the small handful of legitimate threats, the DOJ arrested thousands of labor unionists and suspected radicals, many without a warrant. They then held them in overcrowded and unclean facilities without due process.
Years later leading up to World War II, the FBI conducted surveillance to collect a large list of potential threats to the United States from “enemy aliens.” Once Japan carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor, that database served as the basis for FDR’s notorious internment camps throughout the duration of the war.
Now, many conservatives who cheered after the Patriot Act passed in 2001 find themselves potentially at the other end of the barrel. At the time, they shrugged their shoulders and insisted they have nothing to fear because they “have nothing to hide.” Civil libertarians were quick to warn them that such unlimited authority can be used against them if a new faction rose to power. It didn’t matter if the original intent was pure or not. This kind of power is highly corruptible, and will sooner or later be abused. With Biden’s war of domestic terror, that prophecy is quickly becoming a reality.
When the government is permitted to exceed its constitutional authority and blur the line between credible threats of violence and dissenting political ideology, everyone has something that’s worth hiding. It appears that this lesson is finally connecting with those who have long brushed it off. Hopefully, it isn’t a lesson learned too late.