Posted by Ryan Suto on January 23, 2018 in Blog

In November Senator Durbin introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2017. The bill’s Findings section details the extensive problem of “right-wing extremists,” listing mass shootings, murders, and other attacks on US soil going back to 2012. Notably, the bill references a 2009 Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism which was eventually withdrawn “amid an aggressive political attack on the report from the right.” Because of the emphasis on right wing violence and the reference to 2009 DHS report which singles out groups “leveraging the real estate environment, unemployment, and the election of the first African American president”, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act will likely face difficulty in gaining necessary support from congressional Republicans. 

The bill utilizes an existing definition of “domestic terrorism”: violent acts or acts dangerous to human life occurring within the US which “appear to be intended” to intimidate civilians, influence government policy, or affect the conduct of a government. The intent element of nearly any definition of terrorism often leads to post hoc investigations into the past, motivations, and characteristics of perpetrators, with each analysis often displaying more about the analyst’s biases than the perpetrators’, especially when discussing what someone does, and does not, consider domestic terrorism. Notably, President Trump is quick to label crimes committed by Muslims as terrorism, to the exclusion of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims, despite the greater threat of non-Muslim violence during Trump’s presidency. This bias is no doubt supported by the 4.5 times greater media coverage afforded to any violence committed by a Muslim as compared to other perpetrators, such as white supremacists. 

Next, the bill creates Domestic Terrorism offices in DHS, DOJ, and the FBI, which would release an annual report on the topic, as well as a Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee. The bill would require certain existing anti-terrorism structures to explicitly include domestic terrorism. It is important to note that the bill does not create a new crime or expand legal investigative authority of any existing office.

In total, the bill explicitly re-directs some existing counter-terrorism resources to investigate the origins and acts committed by an often overlooked, and recently emboldened, demographic responsible for a large percentage of violence in the US since 2008. While that may sound like an objectively reasonable goal for legislation, our current political climate will render any vote on the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act a largely symbolic one.