Civil Liberties

Overreacting To Domestic Terrorism Makes It Worse

Targeting “extremists” threatens civil liberties while increasing the stresses that lead to violence.


Another day, another federal warning about a looming threat to the republic. The wheel of fear has spun, once again, to "domestic terrorism," that much-favored concern of politicians and national-security bureaucrats who want to keep us frightened and desperate to be saved. This isn't to say there are no dangers in the world around us, but those risks pale in comparison to government officials seeking excuses to expand their power and who risk worsening the situation.

"The Homeland is facing threats that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile in 2021," the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned in a May 14 National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin. "These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences. Social media and online forums are increasingly exploited by these actors to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity. Such threats also are exacerbated by the impacts from the ongoing global pandemic."

Simultaneously with the release of the bulletin, DHS and the FBI jointly published a congressionally mandated 40-page Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism which summarizes domestic terrorism investigations from 2017 through 2019. While the bulletin talks of potential threats to come, the assessment discusses what has actually occurred.

Interestingly, while the bulletin is vague about the source of the danger even as it implies we should be wary of organized efforts including "small violent extremist cells," the assessment clearly notes that "lone offenders acting independently and without direction from specific groups have been the primary actor in DT [domestic terrorism] lethal attacks." That matters, because individuals acting on their own are a lot more difficult to target than are terrorist organizations. "The FBI and DHS assessed lone offenders would continue to be the primary actor in these attacks, and would continue to pose significant mitigation challenges due to their capacity for independent radicalization and mobilization and preference for easily accessible weapons," the assessment adds.

The two documents also disagree about the treatment of extremist speech.

"[W]e use the words 'violent extremism' to define DT threats because mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute violent extremism, and may be constitutionally protected," the assessment acknowledges.

By contrast, the bulletin cautions that "Ideologically-motivated violent extremists fueled by perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories continue to share information online with the intent to incite violence." It adds that "DHS is collaborating with industry partners to identify and respond to those individuals encouraging violence and attempting to radicalize others through spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives on social media and other online platforms."

That suggests federal officials are focusing on speech, as does the separate announcement of a new Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships. The language evokes recent reports about DHS partnering with private companies that aren't constrained by constitutional considerations.

"The Biden administration is considering using outside firms to track extremist chatter by Americans online," according to CNN's Zachary Cohen and Katie Bo Williams. They add that "federal authorities can only browse through unprotected information on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and other open online platforms….The plan being discussed inside DHS, according to multiple sources, would, in effect, allow the department to circumvent those limits."

"This is false," a DHS representative told me. "DHS is not partnering with private firms to surveil suspected domestic terrorists online. It is also blatantly false to suggest that the Department is using outside firms to circumvent its legal limits."

But if DHS is not looking to partner with private entities that can end-run constitutional constraints, it would be an anomaly among government agencies. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service track people by purchasing location data generated by cell phones and the apps installed on those phones. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies use private facial recognition and license plate recognition systems with sketchy reputations (Clearview AI scrapes social media sites to add to its database and Vigilant Solutions similarly stocks its repository for identifying motor vehicles). But sure, maybe DHS is the holdout here, despite the language in the May 14 bulletin.

So if domestic terrorism is a looming threat, when and where should we be on our guard?

"Violent extremists may seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions across the United States to conduct attacks against a broader range of targets after previous public capacity limits reduced opportunities for lethal attacks," warns the bulletin.

Apparently, after the politically motivated violence of the last year (not yet covered in a domestic terrorism assessment) it's reopening night clubs that will be the death of us all. But that's ludicrous, given that the pandemic lockdowns and economic displacement imposed by the government were themselves important spurs to violence—as predicted. "Unemployment, impoverishment, and despair are frightening outcomes in themselves," I wrote last March. "They're also a recipe for social unrest that will afflict even those of us who weather both the pandemic and the accompanying economic storm."

Just as concerning, with their eagerness for new domestic terrorism legislation and high-profile programs to identify and target "extremists," federal officials risk driving people to violence.

"[M]any terrorists actually hope to elicit government overreactions in order to increase membership rosters," Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor who focuses on political violence, cautioned in Reason in January. "[S]uch overreactions give people an incentive to become terrorists—not only by creating grievances but also by reducing the relative risks of turning to violence…if the government is going to treat innocent people like terrorists anyway, then no additional risk is incurred."

We live in a fragmented country whose residents are increasingly at odds—sometimes violently. But the people issuing warnings about "domestic terrorism" helped to create this situation. Rather than settle tensions, our would-be protectors are more likely to make them worse.