The mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 50 Muslims last month was the work of a white supremacist, as was the murder of Jews, also at prayer, in November.
These headline-grabbing incidents are the products of a global movement working largely behind the scenes, experts say. It’s diffuse and hard to track or analyze — by design. Its activities range from putting up banners to murder.
Now, after much discussion by lawmakers about the need to gather information about white nationalist violence after the massacre of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand last month, two are holding hearings. Activists and experts hope the hearings are the start of a series of moves by the federal government to combat white nationalism. But it’s taken a while even to hold hearings, and more concrete actions might be even harder to take.
“From rallies to leafleting, we have these changes going on that are not being adequately addressed,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism in California, told the Forward in a phone interview. “And we have people who are being radicalized here in the U.S. who are just as dangerous as the New Zealand terrorist.”
The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, announced Wednesday that it will hold a hearing on April 9 about hate crimes and white nationalist groups and the “spread of white identity ideology,” the Hill reported.
Nadler had pushed in November for information from Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI director Christopher Wray and then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on the government’s steps to combat violent white nationalism.
Representative Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and the chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, said he will be holding a hearing as well, on May 9, with members of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, according to a press release.
White supremacist propaganda efforts almost tripled last year to more than 1,000 actions. They also held more rallies; 91 in 2018, up from 76 in 2017, according to the ADL. 2018 was also the fourth consecutive year of hate group growth, to 1,020, reports the Southern Poverty Law Center.
White supremacists are also getting more violent. They killed 50 people in the United States in 2018, said George Selim, who oversees the ADL’s Center on Extremism. 11 of those 50 victims were the Jews shot at the beginning of Shabbat services in Pittsburgh.
“This issue, when it comes to loss of life in the U.S., continues to be a significant threat,” Selim said.
President Trump has said he disagrees with statements like Selim’s.
After the Christchurch massacre, he said white supremacist terrorism was “not really” a threat.
A Daily Beast report that the Department of Homeland Security was disbanding a group of domestic terrorism analysts was the immediate impetus for Thompson’s hearing: “News reports like these highlight that we really don’t know if the Federal government – and the Department of Homeland Security – have the resources or the desire to address the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States,” Thompson wrote.
Thompson had already asked for a private briefing and accused the FBI and the Department of Justice of “stonewalling” him.
On March 28, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter demanding a briefing from the State Department by mid-April to assess the “global threat from white nationalist terrorism.”
When tackling a problem, elected officials’ customary first step is to hold a hearing, but Congress also has the “power of the purse.” It gives or withholds money through the Appropriation Committees in both the House and the Senate, which control the federal budget. In the House of Representatives, that committee is considering a $4 million grant to study “domestic radicalization,” which would include white supremacy, a Democratic aide told the Forward on condition of anonymity.
However, that aide also said that the committee isn’t sure whether it should do so, because it doesn’t trust the Trump administration to spend the money as directed.
Trump shifted an Obama-era de-radicalization program to focus solely on the threat of Muslim terrorists and cancelled the only grant to a group helping neo-Nazis leave the ideology.
Some activists say Congress should make a law — in addition to gathering information and allocating money and overseeing agencies — to fully address white nationalist violence.
“We … need Congress to enact a domestic terrorism statute,” said David Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Indeed, just such a bill — the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act — has already been written. Representative Brad Schneider, a Democrat of Illinois, introduced it in the House in February 2018, said Selim. The bill would create domestic terrorism units within DHS, the Department of Justice and the FBI that would work together to monitor, investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism — and submit an annual report to Congress about it.
“Before, with the attacks on San Bernardino and Paris, terrorism was jihadist. Now, it’s different,” Levin said. “Fear, anxiety and conflict over demographic changes has changed [how much and how] white nationalists are able to recruit.”