SPLC president urges Congress to not ignore terrorism from radical right

SPLC President Richard Cohen testified today about the threat of radical-right terrorism before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts.

He delivered the following oral remarks to the subcommittee chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz, in addition to written testimony:

Thank you, Senator Cruz, it's good to see you again.

Our country faces threats of violent extremism from many sources.

The horrible massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub earlier this month by a gunmen pledging allegiance to ISIS is but the latest example.

A year ago this month, it was the massacre of black churchgoers at Charleston’s “Mother Emanuel” church by a white supremacist.

Two years ago this month, it was the murder of Las Vegas police officers by antigovernment zealots who had been at Cliven Bundy’s ranch.

I would not take issue with the Obama administration’s assessment that terrorism from those affiliated with or inspired by groups like ISIS “represent[s] the preeminent threat to our country.”

But I would point out that the threat of violent extremism from those blinded by racial hatred and rage at the government are serious ones as well. 

And while I would not go so far at to say that our government has been willfully blind to these latter threats, I would say that the record shows that both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as the Congress, have not always given these latter threats the attention they deserve.

The clearest example of this point comes from the history of the domestic terrorism task force the Justice Department established after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The task force was scheduled to have one of its regular monthly meetings on 9/11.

But not only was that meeting canceled, the task force didn’t meet again for 13 years as the threat associated with groups like al Qaeda came to dominate the government’s attention.

During this period, the number of hate and conspiracy-minded antigovernment groups skyrocketed, and the level of violence from the radical right increased by a factor of four.

President Obama has been a particular lightning rod for the radical right.

The day after he was first elected, Stormfront – the world’s leading new-Nazi website, whose members have committed numerous murders – reported that it was getting six times its normal traffic. 

“There are a lot of angry white people looking for answers,” the site’s publisher, a former Klansmen, explained.

When DHS released a report in 2009 assessing the likely backlash to the election of our first black president,  the reaction from groups like the American Legion and members of Congress was so fierce that the report was withdrawn and the DHS unit that produced the report was allowed to wither.

In 2014, the Justice Department finally revived its domestic terrorism task force after a white supremacist, Glenn Miller, killed three persons in Overland Park, Kansas, he thought were Jewish.

But still, there are indications that the threat of terrorism associated with groups like ISIS dominates the government’s thinking. 

The Oklahoma City bombing was the first terrorist incident that President Obama mentioned in his speech at the White House Summit on Countering Violence in 2015.

But it was virtually the only mention of radical-right terrorism during the entire summit.

Two weeks after the Charleston massacre, the House Homeland Security Committee released a “terror threat snapshot” that didn’t mention the killings.

Congress has held multiple hearings – as it should – on the threat of terrorism associated with groups such as al Qaeda.

But, as far as I know, neither the House nor the Senate has held hearings on the terrorism directed at law enforcement officials in the West by antigovernment zealots such as the Bundys.

In fact, members of Congress as well as state and local officials have actually sympathized with the Bundys at times.

Again, the threat of extremist violence from individuals associated with or inspired by groups like ISIS is deadly serious.

But it’s not the only threat that we face.

Furthermore, as the recent study by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security concluded, law enforcement’s virtual singular focus on the threat of terrorism associated with groups like ISIS and its heavy-handed tactics risk fraying the bond of trust between law enforcement and Muslim communities that is so essential to effective law enforcement.

President Bush said it best: “We’re not at war with Islam.”

Muslim communities are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Thank you.