Our panelists explore what key factors led to the insurrection on January 6, what policy gaps were exposed in the run-up to the events, and how different approaches are needed to tackle this threat before it worsens.
Michael Barr: Good afternoon, I'm Michael Barr, the Joan and Sanford Weill dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. It's a pleasure to welcome all of you to this policy talks at the Ford School event on the rise of domestic violent extremism with Heidi Beirich, Janet Reitman, and Towsley policymaker in residence, Javed Ali. The January 6th attack on the Capitol demonstrated for all of us that domestic violent extremism is on the rise. While much of our national security apparatus focuses on threats from outside, it is vitally important to our democracy that we also be aware of threats from within. This conversation will address some of these new threats that have arisen and how we might mitigate them. Before I introduce our panelists, I want to recognize the Towsley Foundation. Established in 2002, the Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence Program allows the Ford School to bring individuals with significant policymaking experience to campus. Javed Ali, our moderator today, is one such policymaker, having served with distinction at the National Security Council, the FBI and other agencies, working on counterterrorism policy. Javed put this event together. Thank you, Javed.
MB: Thanks also to the co-sponsors of today's event, the Political Science Department, the Center for Political Studies, and Wallace House. And now, to briefly introduce our panelists today. As I mentioned, Javed Ali has over 20 years of professional experience in national security and intelligence issues. He is a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. He also served in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, where he held senior positions on joint duty assignments at the National Intelligence Council, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the National Security Council. Heidi Beirich is the co-founder and chief strategy officer for the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She's an expert on American and European extremist movements, including white supremacy, nativism, antisemitism and anti-government movements. For nearly a decade, Beirich led the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, the premier organization tracking hate and anti-government movements in the United States.
MB: Janet Reitman is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, covering extremist movements and national security. She has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award and is the author of the best-selling "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion." She is currently writing a book for Random House on America's drift towards authoritarianism in the post-911 era. Finally, a couple of quick notes of that format. We'll have some time towards the end for questions from the audience. We've received some questions in advance already, but you can also submit questions in a live chat on YouTube or tweet your questions to #policytalks. And without further ado, welcome Javed, Heidi and Janet, I'm looking forward to the conversation. And now, let me turn things over to our moderator, Javed Ali.
Javed Ali: Dean Barr, thank you so much for having me today, and not only today, but for having me back for a third year teaching here at my beloved alma mater and the Towsley policymaker in residence role, it really is an honor to be affiliated with the Ford School these past few years, and certainly excited to be hosting today's event as well. And I also wanted to thank the Towsley Foundation for their support and the rest of the Ford School staff and students. But as Dean Barr, as you've described briefly the careers of Heidi and Janet, and so, so happy to have you here both for the next hour. But I also... Before I launch into some questions to get your substitive insights, I think it'd be helpful for folks not as familiar with your backgrounds to hear a little bit more about your careers and how you evolved or got really interested in this topic, and then we'll pivot off of that into a few substitive questions and then take ones from the audience.
JA: So Heidi, if you could first start with kind of a little bit of a deeper sort of pull from your own career, and then Janet, the same as I was telling Heidi. Before we started formally, always good to see someone else from the big 10 family in Policy Talks. So Heidi, you've got your PhD from Purdue University, so good to see that from a big 10 perspective. Heidi, over to you.
Heidi Beirich: So yes, I got my PhD from Purdue, big 10. I wanna thank the Ford School of Michigan, all my Midwestern friends. And I was intending, actually, to become a professor, and my dream's, to end up at a place like Michigan. But I had landed an internship at the Southern Poverty Law Center, almost randomly, and began doing work... This was in 1999, tracking hate groups and doing advocacy around issues to combat hate and extremism in the United States. This was largely things like white supremacy, Neo-Nazism, antisemitism, anti-immigrant work. And I frankly got hooked on the advocacy in a way that I did not expect. I had expected to have a traditional academic path and ended up staying at the law center for 20 years of... I did every single job in the department I eventually headed called the "intelligence project." And so during those 20 years, wrote many, many things about extremism, did law enforcement training on these kinds of things, trainings at places like where you were, the National Counterterrorism Center, and ended up writing a whole lot about this movement, coming up with strategies to reduce the amount of hate and extremism out there, like for example, working with the tech companies. That was a big chunk of the work. Also running down leads and things that lead to criminal cases with law enforcement against some of these folks. So it's just many, many years of studying far-right, extreme right organizations.
HB: And then this past summer after leaving the center, after about 20 years and a few months, founded an organization, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, to do this work transnationaly to look at how American organizations export hate abroad, how funding and money flows between extremist groups in different places, and to tackle what has now become an international scourge in terms of white supremacy.
JA: Alright, Heidi, thank you for that. Janet, please.
Janet Reitman: So I... Gosh. So I grew up in a civil liberties household, my dad worked for the ACLU for like 40 years. So my whole childhood was spent immersed in these kinds of topics. And I was a writer, I didn't necessarily even want to be a journalist, which is odd, given who I am. But that was not my thing, and I kind of just fell into doing journalism after traveling a lot and just kind of loving writing about what I was seeing and trying to figure out a way to make a living and travel, [chuckle] basically. But ironically... And this does not reflect on the rest of my career by the way. One of the very first things I ever got published was a little piece in The New Yorker, of all things, a talk of the town piece about militia groups, a militia watcher after Oklahoma City, I'd just gotten out of school. I went to Columbia for... I got a Master's degree there, and I went to the journalism school and Oklahoma City happened. And I wrote this little piece, and so that was kind of my first sort of thinking and writing about the issue. And I've just... Frankly, I wound up doing a lot of coverage in the late '90s and the early 2000s up to 2004-'05 of conflicts.
JR: And I was in parts of Africa, I was in Iraq, and you're just sort of immersed in extremism, essentially. And so when I came back, I came back from Iraq in 2004, I was working at Rolling Stone. And I just began to look at the domestic... The war on terror at home and what was happening here, and I began to cover that from the perspective of these young people, because at Rolling Stone, of course, we have young readers, and we're always... It was just kind of a fortuitous convergence of war kinds of stories that we would normally do. And the fact that most people who were involved in extremist movements happen to be young, so you could write a lot of stories about that. And that's kind of what I did, and I talked with the Boston bomber, I wrote about kids that wanted to join the Islamic State in terms of national security. I wrote about Edward Snowden and Chelsea, then Bradley Manning. And then more recently, I wrote a really big story about the Atomwaffen Division, which was this white supremacist group that was created by a 19 or 20-year-old. And that's sort of what's gotten me interested, now I'm writing a book about it. So it's just become a kind of a... As a magazine writer, you don't have a beat in the way that most newspaper reporters do, so it was kind of my self kind of beat.
JA: Well, thanks. Yeah. No, thanks, Heidi and Janet, for sharing some brief insights into your own careers on this topic, because this is exactly why I wanted you here, because you each got decades of experience and insight to bring on the different subjects we'll tackle. So let's first take a little bit of a step back and look at the threat landscape and its evolution here in the United States. And so Heidi, let me start with you. So as someone who spent decades looking at violent extremism, certainly far-right extremism in the United States, hopefully you can help put the current events of the six into the right context. So kind of first question for you, Heidi, would you agree that we're in a new wave or a new cycle of violent extremism? And if so, when do you think that wave started? Do you think it was in the late 2000s, sort of the President Obama era, or do you think it stretches back even further into the '80s or '90s?
HB: Well, organized white supremacism has been a problem, a threat problem for the United States for a really long time, actually. We can think of Timothy McVeigh's bombing in 1995, which if 9/11 hadn't happened, would have been the largest domestic terrorist attack this country had seen, at least in terms of the numbers of people killed. So we've had this problem on our hands for a long time, and of course, if you even go further back in history, you can think of the Klan and eras when this country was arguably white supremacist by law. We've always had... This Klan was the original domestic terrorism group after the Civil War. But I would argue that there has been a sea change in the nature of this movement. I'd probably put it somewhere around McVeigh in the 1990s, when white supremacy has become much more violent, much more extreme, Nazified in many ways. And once you got to the tail end of the Bush administration, we started to see the explosion of domestic terrorist attacks by these groups.
HB: Also simultaneous with the federal government actually starting to ignore the problem, basically not deal with the problem. So we started the attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, the killing of George Tiller, an abortion doctor shortly thereafter. And then over time, it started to be a plot or a plot that was foiled, or an attack. At one point... I think in like 2014, when I was at the SPLC, we counted one every 34 days in the United States, and it's just gotten worse, right? We've had the El Paso Walmart attack, the Pittsburgh attack. There were actually four terrorist attacks around the mid-terms, and then the sort of explosion of violence on January 6th, which did something different. It brought together factions of the far-right in a way that they didn't used to work together. So we saw militia groups, hand in hand with white supremacists, with conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters, and also, frankly, with a lot of just regular old MAGA supporters.
HB: What I would argue is driving this and why we're gonna still see some several years, probably of attacks like Pittsburgh and El Paso, is changing demographics in the United States, and the fact that the white supremacist movement has come to an ideological alignment that white people are being genocided and something has to be done to stop this process. The answers for some groups are different than others, but they almost all involve violence to secure white hegemony, basically. And this isn't just an American problem, this is a problem in lots and lots of countries.
JA: So picking up on some of what you described, Heidi... And again, your lens is going back a little deeper than even mine. So even pre-Oklahoma City, right? So what this sort of white supremacist or far-right threat looked like, going back to the '80s, can you help shed some insight on that? And these are probably... The names of these groups, of these organizations, most people, I would suspect in this call, aren't going to be familiar with. So groups like The Order Aryan Nations, The Covenant, the Arm and Sword of the Lord, how do you see the sort of ideological connection from what that landscape looked like in the '80s to what you then saw in the '90s and then going forward?
HB: Well, a lot of the ideas are very, very similar. You didn't mention the National Alliance, but that's a Neo-Nazi group that I would add to the groups you listed that were the big boys in the 1980s, right? The order was an actual cellular structured terrorist organization that killed radio talk show host, Alan Berg, and took over armored cars, and sent that money, actually gave money to groups like The Aryan Nations and the National Alliance. And the same book that Timothy McVeigh patterned Oklahoma City on "The Turner Diaries," which was written by the founder of the National Alliance, who's now deceased, is a book that's in circulation right now all over the place and read by modern day Neo-Nazis. You can find it everywhere. In some ways, William Pierce, who was the founder of the National Alliance, is the intellectual granddaddy for the Neo-Nazi movements we have today. Now, the one thing I think is a little different is those groups that you mentioned, like Aryan Nations, were much more structured with a hierarchy, chapters, dues, leaders, and real world activity.
HB: Nowadays, we don't see as much of that kind of formal structure. This is like the era of the little wolf or disparate online networks, and so the world of Neo-Nazis functions differently, but some of the ideas are exactly the same. And in some cases, some of the groups today are... William Pierce talked about wanting to have a race war. Some of the groups that we studied, one that Janet mentioned earlier that she wrote about, Atomwaffen, are really trying to get that race war going. So I think that the dimensions of the terrorism are a little bit scarier, actually, even than back then.
JA: And Janet, let me also get your thoughts in this '80s, '90s timeframe before we fast forward to the more current events. What would you say were the impact of events like the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992 and the Waco siege in 1993? Again, I'm not sure how many of our listeners remember those or understand the significance to even what the current threat landscape looks like, so if you can shed some insight on that.
JR: I mean, I think both of them had a massive impact, and I think as we've talked about before, there was, the government's reaction to both Ruby Ridge and Waco was kind of over the top. Ruby Ridge was... I'm writing about both Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City in this book I'm working on, so I've had to do a lot of Ruby Ridge research. And Ruby Ridge was driven by a woman named Vicki Weaver. We tend to look at it through the prism of her husband, Randy Weaver, but it was really driven through the wife who had apocalyptic visions. She was a fervent Mormon fundamentalist, who had grown up in a Mormon fundamentalist home, and was driven by God and thought that she was... They were going to have the great apocalyptic standoff with the government on this... Or the forces of Satan on this mountaintop in Idaho. And so the federal government responded to this without... As if they were terrorists, as if... Randy Weaver had been a Vietnam veteran and they believed that his whole land was booby-trapped, which it was not. And so there was this massive response, and then there was a similar massive response to Waco.
JR: And I think that the two of those... And also remember, not with Ruby Ridge but with Waco, Waco happened right at the moment that CNN launched and became a 24/7 news channel and began broadcasting. This was even before the OJ era, but it was like this was the moment when, all of a sudden, it was possible to watch sensational news happening in real-time, and people were glued. There was nightly updates on... Daily updates on Waco. People went and watched it like an event. It was like a party. People like... What's it called? I forgot, anyway, they treated it like it was a football game. And they would hang out and sell t-shirts and sell merchandise and all kinds of stuff like this. And so these two events and the way that, specifically, the government responded with Waco, that was tragic. And I think that what that did was it... Waco in particular, helped the white supremacist movement find new recruits. The white supremacist movement would go through these phases, as Heidi, of course knows too. They would go through periods in the '80s, they rose, and then they kind of fell a little bit, some people were rounded up and sent to jail, the order fell apart, and then they were looking for kind of a new way to rebrand.
JR: They're really good at rebranding, so they re-branded in the '90s through the militia movement. And what you saw was the militia people that began to emerge, and even testify, believe it or not, after Oklahoma City, they testified... They were invited to Capitol Hill to testify about being militia men. These were white supremacists. Some of these people were Christian identity... Hardcore Neo-Nazi, Christian identity types, but nobody knew that in the government and they had rebranded as patriots. And so I think it's important to look at even the terminology that's used today, it's the same as was... The whole Patriot movement in the terminology is exactly the same as it was in the 1990s, and so I think that's sort of a pivotal time, but I also agree that it has moved far beyond that point.
JA: So Heidi and Janet, thanks for setting the stage with this shifting and evolving threat landscape that stretches back 20, 30, 40 years, depending on when you pick up your analytic framework. So let's fast forward to where we are now here, what? It's March 29th, almost three months after the events of January 6th, it's hard to believe it's been three months, but with a little bit of perspective now behind us, Janet first, series of questions to you, just on the events of the 6th. So what is the best way that you would describe or think about the events of the 6th at the Capitol and related to this as you think about that first question, would you agree with FBI Director Wray's assertion that... 'Cause he testified to this a few weeks ago, that the violence that day, at least from the FBI's perspective, did seem to fit a definition of domestic terrorism.
JR: Did or did not?
JA: Did. That's what he...
JR: Yeah. I think that... I'm gonna take a contrarian stance. I'm uncomfortable at this point after a 20-year war on terror with the word terrorism and I think this was political violence for sure, or politically motivated violence. And I think certainly it meets the definition of domestic terrorism. I worry about the push towards domestic terrorism legislation and a new war on domestic terrorism that I think could be devastating from a civil liberties perspective, and unneeded in certain ways. But yeah, I think certainly it meets the definition. I don't think that everybody who attacked the Capitol or was part of the mob or who was arrested, I don't think every single one of them is a domestic terrorist, by the way, I think there were some that definitely are very violent people that need to be prosecuted under those kinds of laws. But I think there were a number of people that I think got swept in, and I think that it would... There's so many of these cases, and I think it's probably worth really taking a look at. Anybody who went in there deserves some form of punishment, but I don't think every single one of them has to be considered a terrorist.
JA: So picking up on that, one of your points so what judgments can we draw from this vast pool of people now over... The number seems to be changing every week, but at least 300 people charged or arrested in the aftermath of the 6th, so can you try to shed some insight on the diversity of the pool of people who at least fit within that category, that's not the totality of the people there, but these are just the people who have been arrested or charged with crimes.
JR: It's really interesting, 'cause the University of Chicago has done this study on all these people who were arrested, and I was just looking over at the numbers, so we assume maybe that most of the people that showed up were from red states, for example, and from certainly smaller parts, smaller towns, rural areas. It turns out we had 17 from California, 25 from Texas, these are the largest proportions. 17 from California, 25 from Texas, 28 from Florida, 27 from Pennsylvania, and 22 from New York. All of... Every place, every one of the counties that these people came from, with majority Biden counties, they were larger areas, they also had large number of Trump voters, but these were not necessarily, sort of people who were coming from rural Iowa, they were coming from... In some places very metropolitan areas, they were... In many cases, these were largely white men, but they were professionals or small business owners but were not necessarily unemployed, they were not poor. They were sort of middle class. Most of them were employed.
JR: There was a significant number that were in the military or law enforcement. Not by the way, super high ranking, there's a lot of people that mistake, when you say that, so and so had military experience, that's one thing, but I mean, these were not necessarily special forces guys or sort of snipers or anything like that. There were a number of people that served five, six years, maybe even longer in the military, and never even got above the rank of a corporal. So, I'm not insulting corporals out there, they sort of did not have stellar careers in the military but... And there were also, the majority of them were Trump supporters, but not necessarily white supremacists or members of organized militias or neo-nazis. Proud Boys, they were represented for sure, and they were probably the most violent for sure, but the kind of the bulk of these people were there because in my view, they were very angry and they were basically expressing a form of white rage, and that's what that was, and I think that's a really important distinction because that rage is in our country, and I think we need to look at that and explore that and address that in a way that goes beyond deciding whether or not they're terrorists.
JA: Yeah, excellent insights on that, Janet. And, Heidi, kinda picking up on what some of what Janet has said, so on this issue of factors or the common factors and themes that mobilize this large pool of people, beyond just the 300 who were charged or arrested, so Janet's already identified one, this sense of rage or anger over the election turnout. What other factors do you think led to that very, for the most part, organic mobilization?
HB: Well, I just wanna reiterate what Janet said because I think this has been missed in a lot of the discussion about what happened on January 6th, and some thoughtful people who watch these movements have said it as well, everything was described as a bunch of extremists running into the Capitol who were members of hate groups and other things. That really wasn't what happened that day. In fact, what should have been most striking to all of us was how it wasn't those people, and that's the thing that I think is more disturbing frankly. What we saw over the course of 2020 was increasing rage from the kinds of people Janet described in detail, over the COVID lockdowns, over the social justice protests that happened, the BLM George Floyd protests, and then that rage was harnessed by the Stop The Steal movements, and all the talk of the election being stolen that Trump and his allies harnessed. Of course, there were many people of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and militias who were involved in that as well, but there were also lots and lots of other people.
HB: When the Stop The Steal groups first appeared on Facebook, within days, they had hundreds of thousands of people in each group for various states. So the dynamics here, this is a social movement, this was a social movement that really, really, in the last year, took form both in the real world with protests against the lockdowns, online, offline, against the BLM protests, and then it all culminated on January 6th. Of course, there had been rallies for a few days before that in Washington as well. So we have to understand that there's a lot more going on here than just extremists. There are a lot of people who are extremely angry about the developments in this country, in the different things that I've just talked about.
JA: And for those of you who wanna learn more about the individuals, and again, all the different factors that were at play, not only in addition to the study, Janet, that you referenced from the University of Chicago and Robert Pape and his team, Seamus Hughes, and another team at George Washington University also put out a more, I guess, updated version of the University of Chicago data, and the New York Times has also done a really good sort of individual level assessment. So I think there's three really good studies out there now, just looking at the people who've been charged, because that's where you're gonna find more data based on indictments and the core documents that have been filed against some of those people. So I'd point people to those, if you haven't seen it.
JA: Alright, so we've talked about the historical threat, we've talked about the events of January 6th, now let's spend a little bit of time talking about what, if anything, different is this administration going to do from previous administrations? So President Biden, as both of you know, has been very vocal in his condemnation about domestic violent extremism. One of the things he said when he started his campaign in 2017, it was because of the events... Or 2018... Was the events of Charlottesville the previous year. So we've seen, it's a very personal issue to him, and even since becoming President, he's vowed to do more. So, Heidi, first question for you. While it's still early, administration's still settling in place, what do you think the administration will focus on and where they can deliver some real or practical solutions beyond again the aspirational talk that's been out there for the past few months?
HB: Well, to some extent, I don't think we should under-count the fact that we have a president now who is saying white supremacy is wrong. That is a huge change. It's a huge change to the mood of this country. Its emphasis is a big deal. That was sort of the tragedy of the Trump years, making light of this problem repeatedly, starting with just directly after Charlottesville. We know one thing that the Biden administration has already moved on, and this has to do with the Pentagon and extremism in the military. There's the stand down that the new Sec Def has ordered. It's a little unclear where all of that is gonna go, but there are multiple problems in the military. We don't even have basically data on how many extremists, for example, have been expelled from the military. There's a bit of a black hole there about how serious the problem is. What we do know is that there were a lot of veterans and some active duty in the ranks of those who stormed the Capitol, and there have been a lot of veterans and active duty people arrested over the last few years for terrorist actions, attempted terrorist plots. That's a nexus we have to fix. Timothy McVeigh's just a reminder there. He was a veteran. That was what allowed him to build the bomb that he built, and we don't need to put those kinds of skills in the hands of people who wanna harm our fellow citizens. So that's the beginning.
HB: The kinds of things that I would like to see is some work on law enforcement and white supremacy that's parallel to this. It's much more difficult in the law enforcement world, 'cause we're talking about 18,000 plus agencies across the United States, multiple different kinds of standards and whatnot, but along with dealing with race and policing, I think there needs to be a harder look at extremists in police forces and what's happening there. It's a place where extremist groups like to place their people as well to get access to information largely. I, like Janet, am very skittish about a domestic terrorism statute or the designation of groups.
HB: There's a lot of capabilities right now that exist for law enforcement, if they so choose to put the resources and the staffing at infiltrating white supremacist groups, prosecuting them, etcetera, etcetera. Our history with terrorism in the last 20 years has taught us some ugly lessons about how laws can be used against the exact people they're supposed to be protecting. I'm thinking about, for example, the NYPD with Muslims, after 9/11, a lot of things with Muslims, but unfortunately our country has a history also of using laws against all kinds of dissidents, like Martin Luther King Jr and John Lennon, and the list could go on. So I'm very... It makes me a little nervous to increase those capabilities in any way.
HB: I think other things that the Biden Administration is gonna be looking at, or I hope they're gonna be looking at, is dealing with the online space and the spread of hate, and perhaps some small tweaks to Section 230, which gives the social media platforms basically immunity from any liability for speech that's on their platforms, and it's a place where these movements have been allowed to grow like crazy. And there's other things like coordination across different agencies. DHS having its capability to be not politicized like it has been for the last four years, and to look at threats in a more... As intelligence is supposed to be, which is sort of separate from politics, as much as you can possibly do that. Inter-agency coordination, better coordination with state and federal and local officers, these are all things that can be done to help with white supremacy and militias and extremist groups in the country, and I'm expecting there to be a pretty full program coming out of the Biden Administration. They may also consider having more groups listed as foreign terrorist organizations, FTOs, if they work internationally, which has already happened with the Russian Imperial movement, and that would bring in the international space, more authorities basically to deal with these groups.
JA: So that's a really good list of potential items that could come to fruition under this administration. Janet, are there any of those in particular you'd like to address, or expand on points that Heidi made?
JR: Yeah, I think with law enforcement, it's really, really important that there is training on white supremacy as a threat. Right now, what happened during the Trump era is that they practiced whataboutism with everything, and they put the left, Antifa, on the same level as white supremacists. They were all domestic extremists. They put Black Lives Matter in there too. So the way that... And this is solely based on my own reporting, I've never worked in law enforcement obviously... But the way that people in law enforcement tend to operate is, "Who is a threat to me?" And you have groups that do not like the police, and they have tended over the years, historically, to go after the left or go after African-Americans or civil rights groups, go after dissidents of any sort, and to look at right-wing groups as their friends in a way, and there has to be some kind of... I don't know what it is, but I feel like that's something that really needs to be addressed, that these people are not actually law enforcement's friends, they in fact, sovereign citizen groups kill law enforcement, but there are members of these militia groups that basically would overthrow the government, and they work within law enforcement.
JR: So I think there really needs to be, I think both an examination of law enforcement and who's in law enforcement, and sadly, almost like what the ideology of some of these people are even though that makes me nervous to say that. And also a very clear line of, "Okay, look, who's the threat?" Because when we talked about this earlier, there was a time in the mid-2000s when the number one domestic terrorism threat in this country was the Earth Liberation Front, which is eco terrorists, and who never killed anybody, except for the Unabomber, but... They did arson, they created financial damage, but they did not kill anybody, and you had meanwhile, White supremacists killing people all over the place, and they weren't paid any attention to, and so I think this really... I don't know what that will take, whether that's a conversation about, "Well, what is extremism?" But I think that both federal and state and locals need to take the far-right much more seriously than they have and to stop demonizing the left. Antifa is there to fight the far right. They're not there necessarily, with the exception of the small group of the anarchists, to just fight cops.
JA: Or commit attacks against US civilians, right?
JR: Yeah, exactly. They're there to face... The whole idea of the anti-fascist is to confront fascism. So without fascism, you wouldn't necessarily have these people out on the streets fighting fascism, and so you have to address fascism, and unfortunately, they really haven't done that.
JA: Alright, thanks both Janet and Heidi for your perspectives kinda on the policy piece. There are a number of questions from the audience, and we've got about 20 minutes left, so I wanna make sure we get to those, and I'll do my best to try to get these in. So first question, So beyond changing their amnesty status... And I think you both addressed this a little bit on the social media side... How can social media algorithms and platforms combat extremism and the proliferation of right-wing rhetoric?
HB: Well, I'm happy to talk about this. Look, they've already... They've got policies in place that are supposed to deal with this that they are not dealing with. The algorithms on Facebook and Twitter and whatnot are set up to prefer certain types of more extreme material. You sort of led down a rabbit hole of more extreme, more extreme, depending on how your search mechanism goes. Those algorithms don't have to work that way. They don't have to monetize extremist videos on YouTube, of which there is a ton of. They could just enforce... These are companies that make $40, $50 billion a year, they have the resources to enforce their policies, hire the moderators they need, and deal with this stuff. This is a matter of literally not doing what they've already promised the public they're gonna do and frankly, at some point and time, governments are gonna start forcing them to do it. In Germany, to some extent, that has already happened. So it's not as though we don't know what needs to be done, that there isn't a framework for hate and extremist material and incitement to violence to take down, it's a matter of will, it's a matter of resources, it's a matter of application.
HB: And, I mean, I guess you can probably hear it in my voice, I'm a little sick of the excuses every time the social media executives go up in front of Congress, like they did just a few days ago, and it's always, "We're working on it. We realize we have a problem now. We're gonna do what we can. It's not our fault." This litany of excuses that are ridiculous. So it's time for them to put their money and their resources where they need to be to do what they have promised the public they will do.
JA: Yeah, thanks, Heidi, for that strong response. Janet, anything to add on Heidi's perspective on social media?
JR: I don't. I think that's... I'm listening and learning from that.
JA: Alright, so next question then. So are politicians purposely causing divisiveness to garner votes? Sort of a related question, can we create a political consensus against extremism or what would it take in order to kinda build that? Janet, if you wanna take it on?
JR: This is my thing, right? This is my thing, I talk about it all the time. I think we need to have a reckoning on this issue, on anger and hate. And it's gotten so much worse, and the Trump era did not create it, it just manipulated it, and profited off of it, and magnified it, amplified it, but this is something that has been festering in our society for a very long time, and I think that we almost need to have like a truth and reconciliation commission. We need to have some national conversation that... And not with dumb CNN moderators, by the way. Not with dumb... Not with journalists, like even my... Anybody just thinks, "Well, what do you think?" I mean, just a real conversation around the country of people from very different political perspectives and social perspectives sitting down with one another and talking with one another.
JR: Because frankly, people who believed in QAnon or people who thought that the Democrats were all blood-sucking pedophiles, they didn't begin that way. They used to think in a very different way. So somehow, they began to think that way and you can blame social media, you can blame Facebook, whatever you wanna do, but at one point, not all of these people were insane people that believed a complete conspiracy theory. They were... And I think we need to kind of understand what even left a person that vulnerable to go down that route. By the way, the QAnon members, again, there weren't as many of them as we thought there were on January 6th. But so yeah, I think that there needs to be some kind of reckoning. And I think politicians, they exploit rage and anger to certainly the Republican Party, which has become a completely different beast than it used to be. To me, the Republican Party, for the most part, is an extremist party. And everybody, almost all of the sort of mainstream conservative, middle-of-the-road republicans have left. So you have a bunch of... A lot of very extreme people or people who are willing to kinda get into that with the extremists, like Lindsey Graham. Clearly, clearly they use hate and anger and polarizing rhetoric to get votes.
JA: So Janet, your idea of a truth and reconciliation commission, it's powerful, it's provocative, I'm just not sure we have a history of something like that... Other countries have...
JR: No. It's not a part of democracy though.
JA: It has been gut-wrenching experience for South Africa and other countries, but they've done it and this might be the time to launch something similar. But again, it's gonna take some buy-in from a lot of people as well, just not at the political level. So we'll see if your idea actually kinda picks up any steam. Heidi, do you wanna jump on to anything that Janet said from that brief recap?
HB: Well, I'll just add a little bit with what Janet said about the GOP. This is truly not the Republican Party of like the Reagan era of when I was a kid, and that's not just me saying it. There are multiple political scientists who actually placed today's GOP as closer to, for example, the anti-Muslim extremist party in Germany called "The Alternative for Germany." In other words, the party has moved so far to the right that it lines up with far-right populist parties. And as a result of that, we're gonna have anti-immigrant fear mongering, xenophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment coming from one of our major political parties, and that's a huge, huge challenge and a big change in our democracy really, that is very, very new. I mean, very, very recent, these massive shifts.
JA: Alright, next questions. Question comes from a veteran. So thanks for this question in particular. So I'll just try to boil it down and it picks up on some things, I think both you, Janet, and Heidi have said already, but if we can dig a little deeper. So the question, essentially is, how do we break the cycle of hate and extremism infiltrating the ranks of military, but also law enforcement? What are some actual concrete steps that, I need in each, the military domain and the law enforcement domain that can help sort of roll back some of the ideologies that maybe sort of manifest in those circles?
JR: I think that the military, in particular, has made these claims to have been making an effort and does, I covered the military for quite a while. And I've seen even the Marine Corps making an effort to recruit a much more diverse force, there's been... I think what you're seeing in society overall, is this fear of change as a response to demographic change. And that's happening in the military as well, the military is becoming a much more technological force. They're not... Marines are not storming beaches the way they used to. But there has been traditionally in the military, the military recruit and first of all, there's, it's an all-volunteer military, it's a professional military. So this is not a cross-section of our country. This is a self-selected group. And I know there's a tremendous outreach to minority communities and lower-income communities, to encourage them to join and with promises of education and all kinds of other sorts of programs, but there's in terms of like the tradition of the military, there is still, the Marines, in particular, they get most of their recruits from the Southern White Christian base, normally in the South, and often law enforcement or military families are multi-generational.
JR: So I think that it's kind of difficult to break that, if there's a history of this in your family, or if you're disposed in some way to look at the world this way. It's a bit hard to break that. But I do think maybe diversifying the military. And I've had a couple of conversations actually very recently about this, and there are really some smart vets, young vets who came back from Iraq and took advantage of the post 9/11 GI Bill, which is terrific. And got degrees, and are really interested in going back, and working with vets on this issue. And especially vets who are African-American, and I had a conversation with one of them about how that would work. Because what happens in the military, is they do these PowerPoints, you have these sensitivity trainings, and there are all these PowerPoints. And I've seen young recruits, they're like 18 years old, and they're snoozing in the back. And their captain is like kicking them. I mean...
JA: That only happened when I used to give briefings in...
JR: It has to go beyond the PowerPoint, and it has to be I mean, whether that is getting together in small groups because realistically, you're serving with a group of different people, you're not just serving with your own race. So but I think there's, honesty is really important, confronting the fact that there is a problem is important. I know lots of people in the military that refuse to admit that there is a problem. And they get very offended if you say that there's a problem. So and those are senior-level people, these are commanders, these are generals, colonels, who deny that there's probably extremism in the military. So it starts at the top.
JA: Yeah, well just again looking at the data from the people charged or arrested at least 10%, so about 30. And again the numbers are changing almost on a weekly basis, have either a current or former military or law enforcement connection. So not to say that that pool represents the entirety of what this far-right spectrum looks like. But even from that pool of people from the events of the 6th, that's a pretty sizable chunk. And yeah, I think that points to the concern some people have. Heidi, anything else you wanna say on that aspect that you haven't covered already?
HB: No, I think the military is the place where actually we're gonna see the most rapid and in some ways, easiest change because people who are in the military don't have the same first amendment rights as others. It's a much more controllable situation. In law enforcement, we have a range of serious problems. I'm just gonna mention one. There are literally hundreds of elected sheriffs across this country, many out West, who are members of anti-government groups. There are large... There's a lot of people like that, who are members of the Oath Keepers, for example. So depending on which agency, what level we're talking about on law enforcement, the problems are different. But they're pretty serious. And so I think that that aspect of dealing with extremism is gonna be a lot trickier. I will say this, if you can fix it in the military to some extent, it will spill over to law enforcement, because a lot of veterans go on to join law enforcement agencies, they get a benefit, obviously, from their training, which they should. And so in a way, you might be able to kill two birds a little bit with one stone if you fix the military, but dealing with law enforcement, it's gonna be complex, but it absolutely needs to happen.
JA: Alright, thank you both. I know that's a very complex topic, another somewhat complex and controversial question came in and I'm trying to figure out a smart way to frame this. And this actually came up in my classroom last week when we had a similar focus on my class last week on domestic violent extremism. So I guess the question or the issue is, what if anything might change under this paradigm? We're now looking at some domestic security or domestic violent extremism in this country on the issue of gun ownership. And again, this is something that causes lots of anti-bodies to surface, but is there potentially a solution out there when it comes to that topic that again, fits into a different framework, and just the Second Amendment right in and of itself, but looking at it from more of a security perspective.
JR: I mean, there's a direct nexus between gun ownership and these crimes. And, you know, many far-right groups recruit directly from 2A kinds of groups, 2A forms. They swim in the same pool. Which is not to say that everybody who owns a gun or is pro-second amendment is a white supremacist or a militia person, but I would say that pretty much anyone who is a white supremacist or a militia person is also very heavily into their guns. But it's complicated because you know, like for example, when we talk about, an increase in this activity during the early Obama era, there was a rush among pro-second amendment types to buy up guns and ammunition in that period, right around the time that Obama was elected. You know, there was terror that they were gonna have their guns and ammo taken away from them. And you know, you have all these gun shows all over the country that these guys frequent, so I mean, I think it's terrifying that we have states where you can just open-carry, your... You know, I mean gun laws are ridiculous, like, you know, the stand-your-ground law, for example.
JR: You can pretty much shoot anybody in Florida, if you say that you've been threatened in someway. I mean, that gives license to a lot of people to do things that they really should not be legally allowed to do. So there has to be some kind of sensible conversation, again, around why does anyone need an AR-15, why is that a fetishized instrument. And it gets to sort of in the militarization of our country. So is a certain type of Ford truck, so is a certain type of, you know, of special operator sunglasses. And look, there's a sort of a look and a kind of a vibe that comes from being at war for 20 years, I think, that worships the military and worships guns, and as long as we have that in our culture, I think we're gonna have lots of this kind of thing.
JA: Heidi, anything on that?
JR: We can't even stop that, you know?
HB: Yeah, I would just add that we know that the deadly nature of domestic terrorists attacks in this country are clearly related to the ease of access to weapons. You know, I think Janet described the cultural aspects really well in the role of 2A organizations, especially with militias. I think there are some practical things that could be done. One is the banning of ghost guns, these guns that are created on printers, you know from computer programs that have been actually found on some people who have been arrested for DT plots recently. There are loopholes in the gun laws, like the Charleston loophole, which relates to Dylann Roof, the shooter in Charleston who killed nine people in a Black church, having to do with waiting times and access to guns, the... I'm in Georgia, and the rash of shootings at spas and massage parlors perhaps wouldn't have happened if the person wasn't able to buy his gun that day on impulse. And then, you know, in a fit of rage kill a bunch of people here, Asians in particular.
HB: There's also issues with, for example, if you're convicted of a hate crime, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to have access to a gun. If you're convicted of domestic violence, because there are connections between domestic violence and people involved in terrorism, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to own weapons. I mean, I think this country needs to have a realistic and honest conversation about guns, gun control measures, or gun safety measures, which we have absolutely just not been able to have for decades now because of the way of the power structure of groups like the NRA and whatnot. And it's harming us all, and it's absolutely ridiculous. You know, in New Zealand, within days of the Christchurch shooting they changed their gun laws because they realized that the weapon made it easier to kill mass amounts of people very quickly. We should be able to discuss these things in the civil manner and come to some kind of agreement about how to keep us all safe.
JA: Thanks for that, Janet and Heidi. Again, this is an incredibly complex and controversial topic, or just perhaps starting the conversation on it. So we got a couple of minutes left, just very quickly, we spent the bulk of the time talking about threats from this broad far-right universe. It's not monolithic, it's diffused, it's fragmented, but one really interesting question, what can we say, if anything, about threats from the far-left? There have been periods of far-left extremism in the US. We've seen similar waves, the waves may have been smaller, but we've seen cycles of that throughout modern history. Do we see any potential for that kind of resurgence because now this far-right threat is also increasing, it looks like in severity and scope, or do we think that wave just hasn't yet manifested here?
JR: I think, it's a good question actually. I think there is a tremendous amount of frustration, and I don't think, as I said, when we talk about anger and rage, that's not just exclusively Republican or Conservative emotion. If you look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, that was a progressive social movement that did not turn violent... But there are, you know, Black Lives Matter is not... I don't consider that an extremist movement, but it is a progressive civil rights movement, and is rooted in genuine concern and anger at a system. And I think that there is anger at the "system" that crosses political lines. And I think that parts of our system have been dysfunctional for a very long time, and people are very angry about it. So I wouldn't say that, you know, violence from the left could not happen, but I just don't see it on the same scale. And look, the other thing that's important to bring up, if you let me just make this point, is the role of religion and Christianity in particular.
JR: There's a fervent, fervent Christianity that is woven into many of these groups... Many of, a lot of the people, like, quite a few of the people that showed up on the 6th were driven in some way by this belief in Donald Trump as holy, by their belief that God had sent them there, and that kind of Christian nationalism, Christian patriotism. That's really important to understand as well. And that's a right-wing construct completely. But when you're driven by that kind of faith, you could do... People driven by faith do incredibly destructive things, believing that they've been called to do them. And so, you know, as long as you're driven by a deep belief that God has sent you to do something, that's... Those are scary people, and I don't see that on the left, I see that on the right.
JA: Yeah, Heidi, anything on the far-left?
HB: Yeah. It's a fair and a good question. We've had periods in this country with a lot of violence from terrorists on the list... Symbionese Liberation Front, the Weathermen, etcetera, it's not as though that hasn't happened. I just don't see at this moment in time, any of the factors in society that are gonna push us to that point. In other words, the desperation on the right that the world isn't moving in their direction because it actually... If you care about race and whiteness, it isn't really moving in your direction, is what's driving, I think a lot of the extreme violence. And that just doesn't exist for the left, but that does not mean that there couldn't come a day where something changes on this front. I don't know what the reaction would have been in the US if Donald Trump had won the election in November, for example. We have no idea what that might have looked like, for example.
JA: All right, well, we are a little bit past 5 o'clock, but thank you both so much, Janet and Heidi, for spending time with us this afternoon and also earlier today with students. So, hopefully we'll have a chance to bring you back maybe next year, and see if this situation has gotten better, hopefully in the United States, but thanks for a fascinating conversation and look forward to our continued collaboration. Thanks to the Towsley Foundation too, for supporting this talk, but also for giving me a chance to be a part of the Michigan community the past few years. Thanks to the Ford School Leadership for having me, as well. And special thanks to Daniel Rivkin and Erin Flores from the Ford School communications team for putting this event together and making sure I didn't screw anything up by hitting the wrong button and crashing the system, like I did earlier today, so thanks everyone. And we'll be in touch and take care.