‘The Most Persistent and Lethal Threat’

For years, security experts have warned that white nationalist and white supremacist extremism represent the most significant domestic terrorism threat to the United States. Now, in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the country seems to be gaining clarity about the seriousness of the situation for the first time. How did we get here, and what can be done?

February 3, 2021 — 34:08 min
Play Button Pause Button
0:00 0:00


Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Bruce Hoffman

Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Professor, School of Public Affairs and School of Education, American University

Show Notes

Experts agree that the danger of white nationalist and white supremacist extremism has significantly outpaced Islamist extremism as a threat to U.S. national security in recent years. Now, under a new presidential administration, the problem could finally receive resources and focus in line with its seriousness. But fighting back will be challenging, not least because the threat is diffuse, widespread, and hard to track. 


White nationalism and white supremacism aren’t new, but they have taken on new dimensions in the age of social media. In this episode, two expert guests examine the roots of these ideologies, their evolution, their transnational nature, and the outlook for combating these issues in the years to come. 


CFR Resources


The Changing Landscape of Domestic Terrorism, With Bruce Hoffman,” The President’s Inbox


Pro-Trump Mob Breaches U.S. Capitol, Georgia’s New Senators, and More,” The World Next Week


CFR Master Class Series With Bruce Hoffman,” Bruce Hoffman 


Domestic Terrorism Strikes U.S. Capitol, and Democracy,” Bruce Hoffman 


Right-Wing Extremists: A Looming Threat to the U.S. Election,” Bruce Hoffman 


From the Arab Spring to the American Winter: Cyberspace and Democracy After the Insurrection,” David P. Fidler


The Day the Internet Came for Them: Washington Wakes Up to the Dark Reality of Online Disinformation,” Nina Jankowicz, Foreign Affairs


From Cynthia Miller-Idriss


When the Far Right Penetrates Law Enforcement: America Can Learn From Germany’s Response,” Foreign Affairs


Capitol attack was an epiphany for the far right. It better be one for the rest of us, too,” Boston Globe


Women are joining the far right – we need to understand why,” Guardian 


Read More


Three key factors that drive far-right political violence — and two that don’t,” Washington Post


It Really Is Different This Time,” Politico


What happened in Washington DC is happening around the world,” Guardian


Fringe groups splinter online after Facebook and Twitter bans,” New York Times


Millions Flock to Telegram and Signal as Fears Grow Over Big Tech,” New York Times


Conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists around the world seize on the pandemic,” Politico


‘Nothing can stop what’s coming’: Far-right forums that fomented Capitol riots voice glee in aftermath,” Washington Post


A Domestic Terrorism Law Can’t Solve Right-Wing Violence,” New York Magazine 


Decoding the Far-Right Symbols at the Capitol Riot,” New York Times


A Trump Ban Is Easy. Fixing Facebook and Twitter Will Be Hard,” Wired


For Far-Right Movements, Ashli Babbitt Is Now a ‘Rallying Cry’,” New York Times


What Is QAnon? What We Know About the Conspiracy-Theory Group,” Wall Street Journal


Who Are the Proud Boys? The Group Trump Told to ‘Stand Back and Stand By’,” Wall Street Journal


4 First Steps for Congress To Address White Supremacist Terrorism,” Center for American Progress


How White Supremacy Returned to Mainstream Politics,” Center for American Progress


The Rise of Far-Right Extremism in the United States,” Center for Strategic and International Studies


Capitol Riot Puts Spotlight on ‘Apocalyptically Minded’ Global Far Right,” New York Times


Biden’s Vital but Fraught Battle Against Domestic Terrorism,” New Yorker


Nearly 1 In 5 Defendants In Capitol Riot Cases Served In The Military,” NPR


Republican Ties to Extremist Groups Are Under Scrutiny,” New York Times


Watch and Listen


If You Were on Parler, You Saw the Mob Coming,” Sway


The people behind the insurrection,” Today, Explained



Bruce HOFFMAN: Foreigners coming to America to kill Americans - we immediately condemn it, and we see it as offensive, wrong, illegal, and we've waged a 20-year war on terrorism against this kind of threat. Somehow when it occurs in the United States, it's something we ignore, we don't want to come to grips with. And in part, that's because of constitutional freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. But we have to understand that words matter. And that words can be weaponized, that as we've seen, unfortunately, in the digital era, be very quickly and easily transformed into wanton outright violence

Last month, on a bright day in the Capitol, President Biden used a phrase that no previous president had used in an inaugural address. White supremacy. 

President Joe Biden: 0:23 "a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism" https://youtu.be/EhmMiNGwuyg?t=23

His words were delivered in the very spot where just one week earlier a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol at the behest of President Donald Trump. 

The riot was not exclusively a white supremacist event, but it did bring together extremists from a wide array of white nationalist and white supremacist groups - many openly carrying flags and symbols in support of their movements. One of the most haunting images of that day was that of the confederate flag being lofted in the halls of the Capitol building.   

For years, the United States has devoted enormous resources to fighting transnational terrorism, but until now, the threat of homegrown, white supremacist terror has not received the same focus. Even after multiple mass shootings, even as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security designated it as the most lethal domestic threat. But now, that seems to be changing. 

I'm Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, white nationalism, white supremacy, and the fight to come. 

THE NEW YORKER: 1:26 "USA, USA…" https://youtu.be/270F8s5TEKY?t=85

CBS NEWS: 1:01 "The situation has reached a dire point where the U.S Capitol is now in lockdown, both the House and Senate." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=61&v=ebF2kzD8RT4&feature=youtu.be

CBS NEWS: 0:00 "We are learning more about the Capitol police officer who died of the injuries from the attack. 42-year-old Brian Sicknick served his country in Iraq." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz09oUev-GE

Arnold Schwarzenegger: 0:00 "I grew up in Austria. I'm very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys. Wednesday was the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=zK3EnZDiCfw&feature=youtu.be

SIERRA: So, to start with, I think it's important to have a definition. What is white nationalism?

HOFFMAN: White nationalism, I would define, is an overarching concept that embraces the idea of white supremacism. 

This is Bruce Hoffman. He's a Senior Fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a leading expert on terrorism. In 2014 he was appointed by Congress to lead a review of the FBI's response to 9/11. 

HOFFMAN: It embraces a very strident xenophobic or anti-immigrant position. It is hostile to all those who are deemed, quote-unquote, "the other." In other words, all these strangers, all these new immigrants, are taking what is "ours," but not just "ours" in any kind of material sense. "Ours" indeed is a birthright. The goal of a white nationalist, I would argue, is to rally as many people of his or her race into not just accepting but emulating and adopting their own exclusionary, discriminatory xenophobic views.

The topic of white nationalism and white supremacist extremism is complex. And it lies in the shadow of the far larger problem of racism itself. As you might expect with such a complicated issue, there is debate about nomenclature.  

Cynthia MILLER-IDRISS: I'm going to use the term white supremacist extremism and then tell you why I think it's better than white nationalism. 

This is Cynthia Miller-Idris, a sociologist at American University in the School of Public Affairs and the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, or PERIL.

MILLER-IDRISS: So white supremacist extremism is an ideology that believes in a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, that is racial, that it puts white people, "white civilizations," as they often use the term, above all others. It's a global ideology. And that global ideology rests on a conspiracy theory that is called the Great Replacement that believes that white civilizations are being deliberately eradicated through demographic change and immigration at the hands of usually Jews and Muslims.

VOX: 0:00 "America was built by and for the white Christian people in this nation." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=-e3T3VHmEkg&feature=youtu.be

CNN: 1:29 "We're staring down the barrel of a gun here in white America. We have the possibility of becoming a minority in our own country...a possibility." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=88&v=83WsgVnIQ8k&feature=youtu.be

 EURONEWS: 0:26 " I say immigrants, I'm actually using the wrong word. They are actually conquerors, and that's the thing that we need to understand. Most white people are handing them the keys to our country." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=27&v=0Nd0sHFq22w&feature=youtu.be

MILLER-IDRISS: White supremacist extremists, they have specific policy proposals in mind, but essentially, they want to restore a white civilization. They want to deport or what they sometimes call in softer language re-migrate people who are non-white back to their countries of origin.

So white nationalism, which some people use, has two problems. One is that it can sometimes have the effect of softening what is really extremist, and sometimes even terrorist behavior and making it sound like it's just overblown patriotism. And it also sort of has the effect of making it seem like it's a national problem when I think it is clearly a global problem.

If you have spent any time on the internet or listening to the news or podcasts about this problem, you will know that there are lots of groups. 

So, there are dozens of militias, neo-Nazi organizations, and groups with a specific emphasis on hate. There are the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys, the self-defined "western chauvinists," who gained some fame after President Trump told them to "stand back and stand by." And then, there are other groups that overlap into this far-right extremist space. There's QAnon, a conspiracy theory that features Satan-worshipping pedophiles controlling our government. There are concepts like the "boogaloo," a coded reference to a second civil war, and "incels," a rallying idea for men with deeply misogynistic and violent views. 

The deeper you dig, the more terms and movements you uncover.

SIERRA: Do you think that one problem with assessing all this is just the sheer number of groups? To what degree are these groups all part of the same movement? And what makes it so difficult to pin this down?

HOFFMAN: It's very hard to get a handle on how many individuals are involved in these types of movements because a lot of it is done anonymously. And that's one of the benefits of social media, the internet, is you can be completely anonymous; you could have avatars or monikers that don't reveal your true identity. But there's another element to this is that we're not talking about organizations, we're talking about networks, and networks that often have overlapping memberships. I mean, we may like to create our boxes of the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys, or the QAnon, and so on, what we fail to realize that you don't get a membership card. 

There may not be membership cards, but there is a basic idea shared across all white nationalist groups. And that's the idea that white Americans are the only legitimate Americans. Problems, whether personal, national, or imagined, are blamed on non-white Americans.  

MILLER-IDRISS: So the way I think of it, it's a spectrum of far-right groups that share both anti-democratic ideals, beliefs, and practices, hierarchies of beliefs about superiority and inferiority, and a willingness to use violence, to enact their political goals. Combined with people who are called accelerationist, or have fantasies about a collapse of society, the desire to bring about a civil war, or an insurrection or chaos for the sake of chaos, so that there'll be a collapse and apocalyptic kind of end times, and then rebirth into a new civilization. 

HOFFMAN: And the trouble is because their agendas are so overlapping in many respects, people subscribe to a variety of them. So we're talking about something that is much more amorphous and much more diffuse than we've ever seen in the past. And, of course, this challenges the very foundation of how we've always understood counterterrorism by focusing on the organizations. This is why the U.S. State Department, for instance, has a foreign terrorist organization designation. Because you can identify the organization, you can identify the leader, and you can get a sense of how many members, and then you can sanction it. We're talking about something that is much more difficult to tangibly understand. And therefore, this has worked to their advantage and also slowed our efforts not just to understand but to legislate against it.

MILLER-IDRISS: There's definitely not a unified movement, even though they have tried to. So, in the U.S., the most obvious moment when they deliberately tried to unify the movement was in Charlottesville in 2017, when they held a rally that a lot of people have forgotten, that was actually called Unite the Right.

CNN: 1:04 Background sounds, "Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=64&v=W_L3sMAj_iE&feature=youtu.be

CBS: 0:32 "Today's Unite the Right rally, which is expected to draw thousands of white nationalists, neo-Nazis." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=32&v=FYPKiKbZayY&feature=youtu.be

CNN: 1:15 "They carry torches a nod to the torches like Nazi rallies of Adolph Hitler. They chanted, 'Jews will not replace us.'" https://youtu.be/W_L3sMAj_iE?t=75

ABC NEWS: 0:00 "It was a weekend of street battles and stark displays of racism. Tonight, we examine the hateful groups that now appear to be banding together." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kerAy94eWLc

MILLER-IDRISS: That was the whole intent of that rally was to try to bring together what had been a far-right spectrum that was infighting, that was at odds with each other, that was deeply fragmented, and try to unite them all, under one banner and see if they could be a stronger force in American society and in American politics. That failed. They fragmented just as badly, if not worse afterward. But I think what we then saw was three and a half years of the mainstreaming and normalization of right-wing, far-right, whatever you want to call it, and then they unified around this sort of disinformation landscape around the election. And so what we saw then, in the US, January 6, was a real uniting of the right, unfortunately, a broad spectrum of far-right groups that came together to enact violence. So really, those goals that these groups had forged back in 2017 really did come to fruition in 2021.

As experts analyzed evidence from the Capitol attack, they found that members of more than a dozen of these groups had participated, including QAnon adherents, militia members, Proud Boys, and white supremacist organizations. The spectacle of these different groups, uniting around an attempt to overturn an election, shocked many across the country. But the problem has been centuries in the making. 

HOFFMAN: It goes way back, of course. One could argue that it goes back to even before the founding of the Republic, of course, when slavery was introduced to the United States in 1619. One can trace it certainly, to the Know Nothing movements that arose in the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, which sought to target, in particular, Irish Catholic immigrants to the urban centers of the Northeast. It certainly emerged in the period of reconstruction with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. It gathered new momentum in the 1920s, especially when very stringent and strict immigration laws were passed precisely to keep immigrants from eastern and southern Europe from coming to the United States who were seen as not just polluting the United States and poisoning its white Anglo-Saxon Christian purity, but I think significantly for 2021, were seen as bringing disease and plagues with them. And of course, we've seen, then, it resurface in the 1950s, in the 1960s. But I would say the launch point for what we see in the 21st century really occurred in the late 1970s - early 1980s, when you had, I think, a remarkably similar constellation of events. You had, firstly, many Americans who were tired of a prolonged overseas military expedition and engagement in a far-off land that was in Vietnam and the U.S. wars in Indochina. That because of the prolongation of those wars, and what they saw was the defeat where the United States, after the considerable sacrifice of blood and treasure, just picked up and left this profound disillusionment with elected leadership. It was a time also coming off of profound economic instability and very high inflation rates that created fears of jobs disappearing overseas, for example, of really the diminishment of blue-collar employment opportunities in the United States and the emergence of the Rust Belt as it were. And all those factors combined to give rise to what was the first attempts to really integrate and coordinate and provide an organizational superstructure to the various strands of white nationalism, white supremacism, racism, extreme anti-government sentiment, belief in no veracity or no power of the government above the county level, anti-semitism and so on. And we see many stark parallels today to that previous era.

The period of the 1970s and 80s may not be the most notorious moment in the history of American racial terror. But Bruce points it out, not only because of the stark parallels to our own time but also because innovations among white supremacists then sowed the seeds of the problem as it exists now.

HOFFMAN: The advent of lone wolves or lone actor terrorism, and also online radicalization and recruitment, both have their roots in 1983 and 1984, when American white supremacists championed a strategy of what they called leaderless resistance or "autonomous phantom cell units." In other words, the FBI in that era was so successful in penetrating and undermining, and neutralizing these groups that the white supremacists and white nationalists of that era decided we need a new strategy. 

By decentralizing, these groups made it much harder for law enforcement to track, infiltrate, and break them up. By forgoing hierarchy and instead relying on individual actors, a threat could emerge from anywhere at any time. 

HOFFMAN: The second innovation is that at the time, the white supremacists in the United States were deliberately trying to forge international links, particularly with their like-minded hatemongers in Canada and what was then West Germany. The problem was, every time they sent their hate literature through the U.S. mail, that became a federal offense, and they were vulnerable to being arrested for sending hate mail through the U.S. Postal Service. So that's why, in fact, the same individual Louis Beam, who came up, or adopted, or popularized the notion of leaderless resistance, in 1984, came up with the idea of using at the time state of the art technology, now very primitive communications technologies; basically, modems that operated 48 to 84 baud. I mean, this is like, infinitesimally slower than anything we have today. Using computers that back then cost around three or four thousand dollars in today's money that had 48,000 memory. But nonetheless, using these modems and these bulletin boards, they were able to obviate US Postal regulations that would have put them in jail, but even more importantly, frustrate the efforts of the FBI and the authorities to monitor them, to surveil them, because of course, technologically, the U.S. government was far less sophisticated than the private sector. And what we see today is that something they could never have dreamt of in the 1980s, the power of social media platforms, where you have thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands potential friends, associates, individuals in your circle or network that you can reach instantaneously at very low cost. And, of course, radicalize, inspire, motivate and animate them to commit acts of violence. 

MILLER-IDRISS: I mean, this isn't created by social media. It isn't created by the ability of these online ecosystems, but they are underpinning it and helping its growth and helping people use these events as a channel for recruitment for radicalization and further mobilization. There is still a really important component to it, the real-life kinds of gatherings. It's important that this was symbolically at the Capitol, right? But it was also live-streamed. There was live chatter on chat fora. There were many different ways that the performance of it also relied on this online ecosystem as well as all the planning that goes on prior to something like this happening, relying on encrypted apps and chat rooms, and sometimes very public social media posts that made threats. 

Social media plays a key role at every stage. It has created an unprecedented level of disinformation and polarization the world over - and this atmosphere is key for recruitment to extremist ideologies. It then facilitates bonds between extremists despite geographical distance, allowing them to talk, refine their hate, and articulate their goals. In the lead-up to an attack, and even during, it helps them plan and coordinate. Finally, it allows them to broadcast the attack live, furthering their recruitment and accelerationist goals. 

The Capital was not the first live-streamed white extremist attack. In fact, by January 6, the technique had been refined for years. One of the most infamous examples happened in 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand.  

CBS NEWS: 0:05 "A racist, terror attack in New Zealand, targeting two mosques, leaving this morning at least 49 people dead, and many more wounded." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=5&v=peuXkeYHDnw&feature=youtu.be

ABC NEWS: 0:12 "The man who was claiming responsibility and charged with murder is an extreme right-wing white supremacist who live-streamed the attack, saying it was aimed at immigrants." https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=12&v=TPPeCtO3EPo&feature=youtu.be

CAN: 0:26 "Many of those who will have been directly affected by the shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us."  https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=26&v=REkcKkctdJY&feature=youtu.be

MILLER-IDRISS: What happened in Christchurch was shocking on a lot of levels. It was an attack on two mosques. People who were peacefully worshipping really were massacred, you know, gunned down. It was live-streamed, and so it began a new moment in the kind of use of the Internet to turn terrorism and to what already had been for a long time, which is bloody political theater, and really bring it to a global stage. And then, you know, even though Facebook and others really tried to pretty quickly take down that live stream, it had been downloaded so many times. It was very difficult to get that off. There was, you know, music. There was a playlist, right? It was very much appealing to youth who came of age kind of, in a very technically highly developed online gaming world, where, because of the use of the GoPro kind of camera that allowed for that live streaming to feel more like an attack in an online game. And so that kind of created a whole new way of communicating terrorist events that I think we've seen ever since in terms of using the live streaming capabilities to try to broadcast immediately what was happening and further terrorize the public in a whole different way.

As shocking as Christchurch was, by 2019, mass-casualty attacks by white extremists had become gruesomely common. In 2011 a devastating attack in Norway claimed 77 lives and included a manifesto from the perpetrator that was enshrined by white supremacists across the world in the years that followed. A 2015 attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed nine lives. In 2018, an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh claimed 11. The list goes on, and on, and on. 

As the pattern unfolded, experts began to warn that domestic terror was emerging as a more serious threat than transnational terror and that U.S. resources long engaged in fighting terrorism abroad should be allocated accordingly. By 2020, the Department of Homeland Security had designated violent white supremacy as the "most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland." The change was slow to come.

SIERRA: So, earlier, you know, you mentioned Al-Qaeda and ISIS. So in my lifetime, the word terrorism has been very strongly associated with Islamic extremism. So do you think you can tell us a little bit more about the relationship between those movements and white nationalist terrorism?

HOFFMAN: The parallels between ISIS and the white supremacists are enormous. They're both talking about a halcyon period in the past of historical greatness that they're intent on restoring, and they talk about interlopers, foreigners, outsiders who are impinging upon their customs, their beliefs, their societal values that need to be countered. They're clustering very much inward in an almost a Manichaean "us against them" kind of mentality. No, there are, unfortunately, a lot of parallels. What I think worries me the most is that there's a circularity or a feedback loop in that Al-Qaeda and ISIS, whether consciously or otherwise, I would argue, learn from the experience of American white supremacist, as I've described with this concept of lone wolves that harkens back to leaderless resistance, which was the white supremacist term, and the use of radicalization, and recruitment using computers, and now subsequently digital means and social media. So I say they learned from the white supremacists. But what we're seeing now is the white supremacists also learning very much in particular, from ISIS, and using many of the same tactics, techniques, and means of radicalization and recruitment, that we see ISIS having used to become so effective in such a short span of time. 

The basic goals of ISIS and American white extremists are similar: they both want to drive out the "other" and restore an imaginary time in which they alone wielded power. And these basic motivations are common to ethnic and nationalist terror all over the world. In almost every country in Europe, whether France, Germany, Poland, or Hungary, there are extremist groups, and even political parties, working to push out the "other" and restore an imaginary past. 

SIERRA: Do you think that the U.S. national security apparatus is well-positioned to address this threat?

HOFFMAN: Well, the authorities in the United States are well-positioned to respond to the threat. We have enormously effective law enforcement and intelligence agencies that, when given their orders, when given prioritization, directives from the top, are very effective. There's no doubt they've kept us safe for decades. The problem I see is less the agencies and more the political will. And also the national support behind that political will. 

So there has to be some sort of reckoning, really, and a deeper discussion that addresses the context in the background of how we've gotten to where we are today, if we're ever to make meaningful progress in preventing the types of outrageous activities that we saw in the United States Capitol on January 6. I mean, protests that desecrate, that vandalize, that smear blood and feces on the bastion of United States democracy, on probably one of the most hallowed institutions and buildings in this country, I think, indicate that something has gone wrong somewhere.

MILLER-IDRISS: I think that the FBI has the expertise and could shift the resources and has been trying to shift the resources. The director of the FBI has testified several times now before Congress about the dilemmas they have faced with the imbalance and resources, what they are supposed to be dedicating their time toward, in terms of Islamist terrorism and international terrorism versus domestic extremism and terrorism. I think there are a number of other problems, though, on the law enforcement side, one of which is that there is both kind of unconscious bias and racism that we know is present and we have seen throughout the Black Lives Matter protest is a reaction to police brutality that clearly plays a role in the lack of preparatory response to the January 6 attacks in terms of who's deemed a threat and how prepared they were in riot gear. We have anecdote after anecdote of law enforcement officers, including some who were present now, as we're finding out in those attacks on the Capitol, they're caught for being members of white supremacist extremists or other far-right groups and militias. And so you have groups that are deliberately trying to recruit from law enforcement. On the militia side, you have incident after incident of officers, border control officers, nearly 10,000 of them being caught in a racist Facebook group, you know, sharing racist, kind of, information and chats. But what we don't have is data. And so we don't actually know is this a few bad apples? Or is it a systematic problem? There's anecdote after anecdote, and after a while, so many anecdotes add up to at least there should be data available, mandated reporting from the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice.

Many people don't realize it, but there is no federal law addressing domestic terror. Some say this needs to change if the FBI is going to execute its mission effectively. President Biden signaled his support for such a law in the wake of the Capitol riots and has ordered the office of the director of national intelligence to review the domestic terror threat with an eye on future policy. Another proposal will allow the FBI to formally designate domestic terror organizations for the first time. 

MILLER-IDRISS: We do need new legislation. But I'm also cautious, and I understand the concerns of civil rights groups about the calls for a federal domestic terrorism statute. For example, how can we collect and share the data? What's the scope? And how do you address it? And I understand that it's extremely frustrating for law enforcement to have to charge people on things like weapons charges or something when actually, it's clear that they were plotting, you know, if they don't have the right tools to charge people with what they're doing. But I will say that I think there's a lot of concern from civil rights groups about the violations against Muslim communities that happened in the post-911 era. I think the answer to an injustice like that is not to repeat the same injustice with other citizens to make it equal but to really try to learn from those mistakes and think how we can do better than repeating those same mistakes?

HOFFMAN: I think we need new laws that come to grips more effectively with domestic terrorism. Now, senior Department of Justice officials and those in the FBI, I think, make the entirely legitimate and germane and even cogent point that the existing laws are enough. Criminal homicide, vandalism, bombing, arson, I mean, these are all criminal offenses; we don't need additional statutes. However, you could make the same point about hate crimes, which embrace all of those things. And we do have separate criminal statutes for hate crimes that often impose penalties in some instances, three or four times greater than normal, criminal sentences or sanctions. Because as a society, we want to single out hate crimes as being particularly important to a country whose motto is "E Pluribus Unum"––"from many, one," that is talking about the diversity of the United States. And in that sense, we do need some domestic terrorism legislation, if only because it would close the disparity that we see in the sentencing, for instance, of persons implicated in support of foreign, or commission of violent acts on behalf of foreign terrorists, and those domestic.

And as the U.S. debates whether it needs new laws to prosecute domestic terrorists, there is a more difficult debate afoot about how to reign in social media's enormous power to amplify hate and aid in the commission of terrorist acts. A problem that butts up against the United States' robust free speech protections. 

HOFFMAN: I think what's clear is that the law hasn't kept pace with technology. We're only very belatedly in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacres, we started to talk about it, but those discussions in many countries hadn't gone very far. Now we're presented with the events of January 6, 2021, at the United States Capitol where clearly social media played an enormous part, and even if the mainstream Big Tech companies like Facebook or Twitter, for example, removing this kind of content, it didn't disappear. It just migrated to entirely unregulated sites, especially like Telegram, for example, but also to sites like Parler, and Gab, and elsewhere. So we really haven't started that discussion. The Federal Communications Act section 230, for instance, excludes social media from many of the same restrictions that apply to mainstream media, to television stations to newspapers to radio outlets. In an era where most people are getting their news from social media and not from these traditional mainstream sources, one has to ask whether that's still logical. I'm not a jurist. I don't have the answer, but we really haven't had the debate. 

This is a long-overdue discussion and debate that, of course, is going to receive far greater priority in the coming months, and one has to say years. I mean, what we're seeing in the United States today is not a flash in the pan; emerging from this is going to take many years, if not a decade. And of course, this is going to prompt greater introspection, and I think much more fulsome discussion and legislation.

Looking ahead, these movements may only seem to be gaining steam, amassing more followers who feel emboldened to act on their hateful ideologies. And honestly, as a woman, as a Jewish Puerto Rican, as a human being living in this world, it is not only unsettling but straight-up terrifying.

But we have one advantage - the threat has been laid bare. For any skeptics who remained after Charleston, after the Tree of Life, after Christchurch, the image of nationalists storming the Capitol has put the debate to rest. Achieving consensus on this threat is an important milestone. But for a subset of Americans, the Capitol attack only reinforced a lack of trust in government. And this mentality continues to be fanned not only by the networks of online hate but also by some mainstream media outlets and political supporters of former President Donald Trump, and even by members of the current U.S. Congress who go to work every day in the building where it happened.  

The road is not going to be smooth. The threat is real, and we can never allow ourselves to return to the time in which we ignored it or quibbled about its nature. Understanding and teaching the history of our country's relationship to white supremacy, and its long history of racial terror, is essential to maintaining this clarity. As is teaching the history of the foundational role that immigration and cultural diversity play in our country's strength. 

In the past, the United States has demonstrated its resolve to unite against foreign threats. We will now see if it can do so against a threat to our safety, and our deepest values, from within. 


For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/Whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.

Have a question or some feedback? Just feel like saying hey? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And, please please, if you are a fan of the show, show us some love! Give us five stars and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It means so much to us, and it really does help us to get noticed.

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Our intern for this semester is Zoe Han. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Additional research and extra help were provided by Elena Tchainikova. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!


More Episodes

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the...

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the...

Read More

Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

Read More

Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

Read More

For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

Read More

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

Read More

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

Read More

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

Read More

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

Read More

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

Read More

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

Read More

Top Stories on CFR


Russia’s moves to mobilize thousands more troops and to annex more of Ukraine’s territory signal a new, potentially more dangerous phase of the war.

Puerto Rico

The Caribbean island, which shares a close yet fraught relationship with the rest of the United States, faces a multilayered economic and social crisis rooted in long-standing policy and compounded by natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, migration, and government mismanagement.

Censorship and Freedom of Expression

Suzanne Nossel, the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing threats around the world to free expression and how the fight to protect human rights needs to adapt to succeed in a world of great power competition.