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Should We Treat White-Nationalist Terror Like ISIS?

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The fact that none of this has happened yet speaks to the politics surrounding the issue. In his remarks after El Paso, Trump did put the focus on the ideology behind the attack. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” he said at the White House on Monday. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

On Tuesday, the FBI Agents Association issued a statement urging Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. “This would ensure that FBI Agents and prosecutors have the best tools to fight domestic terrorism,” it said.

Designating white-nationalist extremists as terrorists would only be “a tool,” George Selim, a former Department of Homeland Security official who has held positions in the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, told me. “But in order to figure out what tools we need, the federal government has to articulate its policy and strategy to combat and thwart this threat. And this administration has no articulated policy or strategy to combat domestic terrorism, period.”

During the Obama administration and the first months of Trump’s presidency, Selim headed an interagency task force aimed at combatting domestic extremism, before taking a post at the Anti-Defamation League in the summer of 2017. DHS has since “devastated” his former office, he said. (DHS officials have pushed back against similar claims, saying that resources were redirected.) As an example of the type of large-scale effort he believes the U.S. government should now be pursuing against white-nationalist terrorism, Selim cited America’s fight against ISIS and the international coalition it assembled to join the effort in 2014. “We saw a whole-of-government effort come together and mobilize,” he told me. “The basic premise here is that the federal government needs the same tools and resources for investigating, prosecuting, and preventing the type of radicalization and recruitment we put into [fighting] international terrorism.”

Not everyone, though, sees U.S. efforts against Islamist extremism through a positive lens. The journalist Murtaza Hussain offered a wry take on the subject on Twitter: “Treating white nationalist terrorism like radical Islamic terrorism: putting lots of white people in jail who have nothing to do with terrorism, making most of them too afraid to donate money to charity or engage in politics openly, drone strikes on majority white rural areas.”

Faiza Patel, a co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, has focused extensively on civil-liberties issues arising from U.S. efforts to combat Islamist extremism. She told me that she’s uncomfortable with the idea of another expansion of law-enforcement powers, no matter which group they target, and added that the FBI and other agencies already have enough tools to do the job. The question, she said, is the amount of resources they allocate for the problem and how seriously they take it. “If you were to expand the idea of foreign terrorists to include domestic groups, you would open up a Pandora’s box,” she told me. “Maybe we can all agree that there are certain white-nationalist groups that should be designated, but it also opens the door to the designation of environmental groups, of Muslim civil-rights groups, of a whole slew of other groups.”

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