Domestic Terror Still Thorny Issue for Lawmakers After Capitol Attack

Democrats and Republicans alike condemned the Jan. 6 insurrection, but lawmakers are at an impasse over who is to blame for a rise in domestic terrorism and how to stop it.   

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Less than two months ago, rioters attacked and chased law enforcement officers in the halls of the U.S. Capitol during an insurrectionist attack. But on Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans were as divided as ever on how to handle the threat of domestic terror in America.

Though the violence of Jan. 6 that left five dead was roundly condemned by House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during a congressional hearing, that was about as far as any agreement went.

For many Democrats, particularly Black Democrats, on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, the insurrectionist siege was just the latest example of white supremacy and homegrown extremism run amok. They hoped its aftermath would be a somber catalyst to pass legislation to curb the spread of domestic terror.

“America has experienced white supremacy and right-wing extremism since its founding, from the rise of the KKK through the end of the Civil War through the insurrection of Jan. 6,” said Congresswoman Val Demings, a Florida Democrat. “Aren’t we tired? Haven’t we had enough?”

For Republicans like Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Burgess Owens of Utah and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, the events of Jan. 6 were admittedly regrettable. But more regrettable, they argued, was an alleged failure by Democrats to deal with a so-called rising threat of left-wing violence, namely individuals who associate with the anti-fascist philosophy known as “antifa.”

The FBI has found no evidence of antifa-linked activity in the siege in Washington but that did not stop Republican lawmakers from homing in on activist John Sullivan to support their claims that domestic terror stems predominantly from those on the left.  

Sullivan, before breaking into the U.S. Capitol, had a history of organizing rallies under his group Insurgence USA and espousing pro-Black Lives Matter platforms in his native Utah. But Black Lives Matter activists there had been wary of Sullivan well before the Jan. 6 attack and suggested he seemed eager only to exploit their cause so he could fundraise and agitate for his own personal agenda.

Congressman Tiffany at one point Wednesday detoured from the topic of domestic terror and pressed witness and intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance to explain why more minorities voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 compared to 2016.

“Is that a legitimate question?” Nance replied.

Republicans mostly turned to their invited panelist, conservative journalist Andy Ngo, for testimony.

Ngo suggested the media at large had failed to condemn violent protest prior to Jan. 6, specifically looting or rioting that occurred last summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

Though divisions were on sharp display Wednesday, President Joe Biden is only a month into his term, meaning Congress’ policy-making engine is just getting warmed up and contentious hearings on policy are par for the course.

Democrat Representative Karen Bass of California, for example, previewed the work ahead as she told colleagues plainly that she was unsure legislators could pass laws against domestic terrorism while ensuring they would not be turned against the very communities being terrorized at increasingly high rates, namely Black, Latino and Asian communities.  

“While the KKK was terrorizing people in the south, COINTELPRO and the FBI targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and it is now commonly understood the FBI abused its surveillance powers in a manner to suppress a peaceful movement,” Bass said. “Given this history, it’s not hard to say there needs to be scrutiny of FBI activity within the Black community.”

In 2017, the FBI investigated Black activists organizing racial justice actions as “Black identity extremists.” It abandoned the term after considerable blowback in 2019.

Bass asked fellow lawmakers to consider calling for a classified briefing in the weeks ahead with the FBI to talk specifically about its knowledge of “Black extremist organizations” or others associated with violence Republicans allege comes from the civil rights movement.

“We want to talk about 30 years ago, we can talk about 30 years ago, but I want to talk about 2021. Come here and tell me about Black extremism,” Bass said.

Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, agreed with Bass’ hesitation to pass new domestic terror laws.

“We adamantly oppose any legislation that would create an added charge for domestic terrorism or any enhanced or additional criminal penalties. Congress must help ensure that the federal government uses the many tools at its disposal, including over 50 terrorism-related crimes and over a dozen other criminal statutes and authorities, to prioritize and address white nationalist violence now,” Henderson said in prepared remarks.

Henderson emphasized that he supports efforts to address white supremacy in policing and improve the government’s response to hate crimes.

Next week, the House will vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that passed the House last year but died in the Senate under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It bans the use of chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no knock warrants in federal drug raids and eliminates qualified immunity for police officers.  

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