WASHINGTON – In the aftermath of the mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that America must wage a war on white nationalist terror.
There were editorials in the liberal New York Times and the conservative National Review. George P. Bush, son of Jeb and the Texas land commissioner, published an eloquent call to arms. Decrying the left for downplaying radical Islamic terrorism and the right for failing to confront the white nationalist variety, Bush wrote: “Both are evil, both are real, and both must be confronted and conquered.”
What Bush and others mean to say is that white nationalism, the warped ideology that claims (among other things) that nonwhites are seeking to replace whites, is toxic and must be battled with the urgency of other political wars of the past. Think of the war against poverty or the war on drugs. What the scourge of white nationalism does not demand, however, is the kind of shooting war launched after Sept. 11, 2001.
The current threat cannot be met with drone strikes against militia compounds in Idaho or public diplomacy campaigns to cleave nonviolent white supremacists from violent ones. There will be no U.S.-led global war on white nationalism. The CIA will not be on the front lines.
Instead, the threat of white nationalism requires a law enforcement approach. So how is that going? On the one hand, FBI Director Chris Wray recently testified that 40 percent of the bureau’s 850 domestic terrorism investigations involved individuals and groups motivated by racial hatred. In February, the FBI arrested a U.S. Coast Guard officer who had stockpiled arms and was plotting a race war. The country is fortunate he was arrested before he could carry out his plans.
Many of these attacks are harder to prevent. Unlike American recruits to Islamic State or al-Qaida, white nationalist terrorists are usually not part of a formal group. The closest parallel would be the toxic internet forums like 8chan, where the El Paso shooter is alleged to have posted his manifesto. Also, the bureau does not investigate ideologies, Wray testified last month, “no matter how repugnant.”
Civil libertarians would disagree with that assessment. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found some political spying in the 2000s on environmental and peace groups such as Greenpeace and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.
Then there is the FBI’s aggressive posture against suspected radical Muslims. There have been hundreds of suspects charged with a conspiracy to aid foreign terrorist groups before committing an act of violence. Much of this is made possible by an aggressive approach to infiltrating and disrupting jihadi cells before they strike.
The argument now is that similar tactics should be unleashed against white supremacists. As The New York Times said in its editorial, “American law enforcement needs to target white nationalists with the same zeal that they have targeted radical Islamic terrorists.”
This is a fair point. The civil liberties of online bigots may need to be violated in order to prevent the next attack. But it’s also important to remember some of the lessons of the last war on terror — including the tendency to overreach. As a Human Rights Watch report put it in 2014, “In some cases the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act.”
In the aftermath of the horror of El Paso, many Americans may be more willing to strike a bargain under which some innocent people have their lives ruined to prevent the next mass shooting. This instinct is understandable, but we should also be careful. The extraordinary powers granted to the FBI in a moment of crisis will inevitably be abused once the crisis has passed.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.