Ratcheting up ill- or un-founded fears of violence from people who oppose the current administration’s policies.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has pushed an agenda that appears likely to chill the speech of political opponents while paying lip service to free speech, all in the name of protecting the public from ill-defined threats.
Four times since President Biden took office on January 20, the administration has issued warnings based on unsubstantiated threats of extremist violence:
• On March 3, with National Guard troops still occupying Washington and the Capitol still surrounded by a fence, DHS, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly issued a joint bulletin of a possible plot by a militia group to storm the Capitol again.
• On May 14, after state and local governments began loosening lockdown restrictions on the CDC’s advice, DHS warned that “racially- or ethnically-motivated violent extremists… may seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions across the United States to conduct attacks.”
• Two weeks later, an unnamed source supplied NBC with a DHS memo cautioning that “the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma” was probably an attractive target for “violent extremist-white supremacists…”
None of these warnings cited a specific or credible threat of violence.
During this time period, there was one – and only one – fatal attack on the Capitol. It was not by a white supremacist, but by Noah Green, a black Louis Farrakhan supporter; yet the current administration has shown little interest in exposing or confronting black-nationalist or Islamist violence.
In mid-June, the administration released a 32-page policy paper detailing its strategy for fighting domestic extremism. The paper, “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” pays lip service to targeting all ideologies. In the middle of page 13, it notes, “The definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ in our law makes no distinction based on political views – left, right, or center – and neither should we.” Nevertheless, the paper’s focus is on right-wing white supremacism. For example, all incidents cited in the introductory paragraph involved white-supremacist violence. It mentions the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, but ignores other, more recent attacks like the 2019 anti-Semitic murders at a kosher supermarket/school and a Hanukkah party by black perpetrators.
In actual practice, the administration has not cracked down even-handedly. In May, weeks before releasing its policy paper, DOJ dropped charges against several violent protestors in Portland, Oregon. (The following month, Portland’s district attorney brought charges against Antifa rioters who allegedly attacked the Multnomah County Democrats office in Portland.) At the same time, DOJ has zealously (arguably, overzealously) pursued January 6 rioters.
Explaining the new policy, Attorney General Merrick Garland assured that as a “core principle,” the federal government “focused on violence, not on ideology. In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities.” To combat domestic extremism, Garland continued, the administration was enlisting the technology sector “to tackle the on-line aspects of this threat” – the sector is “particularly important to countering terrorist abuse of internet-based communication platforms to recruit, incite, plot attacks, and foment hatred.” Working with Big Tech is not just prescriptive. On July 15, White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted that the administration was working with Facebook to flag “problematic” posts that “spread disinformation” on COVID-19. Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen has suggested that government steering of dominant internet platforms may be “tantamount to government action and hence subject to First Amendment limits,” and argues that “government punishment of disinformation is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.”
What Garland called a “whole-of-government” approach also includes enlisting the military to root out domestic extremism. Weeks after taking office, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the military to ‘stand down’ to address extremism. The Air Force Academy’s counter-racism efforts include required training touting the virtues of Black Lives Matter ideology.
In the latest critical race theory salvo, Garland issued an October 4 memorandum to the FBI and leaders of the Department of Justice (including its National Security Division) informing them that the Department will announce a series of measures “to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.” What is this alleged criminal conduct, where is it rising, and who is committing it? The memo doesn’t specify. It was evidently issued in response to a complaint letter the National School Boards Association sent to the president, alleging that school officials have received threats at school board meetings and elsewhere.
Exactly what federal interest the AG is trying to vindicate is also unstated. School boards are local authorities and assault is a state law crime.
Despite the lack of any known victim or federal crime, an October 4 DOJ press release invites the public to report “[t]hreats of violence against school board members, officials, and workers in our nation’s public schools” to the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center. The press release also says DOJ plans to create “specialized training… [that] will help school board members and other potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats,” how to report it, and how to preserve evidence of it.
This echoes the administration’s anti-extremism program, which includes promoting civic education. “The administration said part of its strategy is to improve civic education to promote ‘tolerance and respect for all’ and foster programs that ‘inspire a shared commitment to American democracy.’”
Ratcheting up ill- or un-founded fears of violence from people who oppose the current administration’s policies on promoting critical race theory, COVID lockdowns, and an extended militarization of the capital; banning speech on these and other issues on the supposed ground that it is dangerous “disinformation”; and promoting ideological “education” in the guise of teaching “tolerance”, are not within the president’s remit. Instead, they seem reminiscent of Orwellian threats that “Jones would come back” if the public were to challenge government policies, or of cultural revolution-era struggle sessions. Biden, who took an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution, may himself need a primer on the First Amendment.
Johanna Markind is Research Editor and Counsel at the Legal Insurrection Foundation, which she recently joined.DONATE
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