This past Sunday, the Illinois Senate passed a resolution targeted toward local law enforcement, asking those bodies to designate Neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups as terrorist organizations. The resolution was a response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one civilian and two police officers ended up dead.
The resolution was introduced by State Senator Don Harmon, a Democrat, and mentions that “white nationalism has promoted intimidation and violent repression of individuals” and how it’s recently “attempted to reinvent itself, self-identifying as ‘the Alt-Right’.”
The core of the resolution remains somewhat vague, as it urges law enforcement to “pursue the criminal elements of these domestic terrorist organizations in the same manner and with the same fervor used to protect the United States from other manifestations of terrorism.” Some journalists are speculating that Illinois’s legislation will be used as a starting point for other state resolutions throughout the country.
Although it would be great to wipe out strains of white nationalism throughout the country, it’s tough to draw the line between domestic terrorist organizations and political groups. It’s harder to tell where one ends and the other begins. Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, discussed this on NPR’s 1A podcast earlier this week, saying, “I completely sympathize with the impulse, [but] let’s say I give some money to an alt-right group or organization that’s, as a legal matter, treated as a terrorist group. Then that’s material support to a terrorist organization. That’s not gonna fly in any American court.”
When the government begins to crack down on ideology, there’s no guarantee it’ll pursue only the most revolting ones.
His point is that even American hate groups are privy to a vast number of legal protections designed to prevent the U.S. government from cracking down on political dissent and First Amendment protections. That’s the good part of our liberal democracy, not the bad one––but it comes at a price, one that’s becoming costlier the more white nationalists are emboldened and put their repulsive views on display.
Bergen is right in his response to Harmon: What would this Illinois law look like if challenged in court or actively used for convictions, and what would a similar federal designation look like? It’s not as if the Department of Justice doesn’t already prosecute right-wing extremist crimes to the fullest extent that they can, from murders to civil rights violations to hate crimes, depending on the specifics. Generally speaking, given the extensive legal protections afforded to American citizens, the FBI has to have a clear reason to believe that a crime is imminent in order to target domestic terrorists.
If passed, this law would be unique; neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other white nationalist groups are not currently classified as domestic terrorists, though the FBI does monitor many of these groups and has for a long time. The temptation to give both federal and state governments broad surveillance powers over such groups is strong. When the government begins to crack down on ideology, there’s no guarantee it’ll pursue only the most revolting ones. The FBI’s very own COINTELPRO targeted anti-war protesters, Martin Luther King Jr., feminist groups and Black Panthers during the 1950s and 1960s. In 2010, the FBI went after anti-war activists, and in 2005, the public discovered that the FBI had been tracking animal rights groups like PETA.
Who’s to say that a Department of Justice––particularly one headed by Jeff Sessions––would use this newfound power well? Remember, courts serve as a safeguard against nutjob politicians; if legal definitions surrounding free speech and domestic terrorism change, the short-term results might be crackdowns on neo-Nazis, but the long-term results could be more insidious, hurting groups across the political spectrum. And with President Donald Trump placing blame on “many sides” post-Charlottesville, in an almost overt effort not to lose his white nationalist supporters, will anyone even remotely connected to the Trump administration make the right call if given broader powers to crack down on domestic terrorists? It seems like such a law, by their twisted logic, could easily be used to suppress Black Lives Matter.
The instinct to make more things illegal post-tragedy is nothing new, but hateful acts aren’t always preventable. Often, regulating one specific aspect of a violent act won’t necessarily quell it, but divert it. If you regulate guns, knives might be used in the future—or cars, as we saw in Charlottesville. Will designating white nationalist groups as terrorist organizations stop their scourge or simply drive them off Twitter and into underground operations, reinventing them as martyrs in the eyes of their pathetic supporters?
Perhaps a terrorist group designation would give federal and state governments expanded surveillance powers. It could allow them to sidestep warrant requirements, curtail free speech rights and more decisively target the most abominable people in the country. But that wouldn’t go unchallenged in the courts, and would likely be seen as an egregious violation of American citizens’ civil liberties. It’s also likely that terrorist group classifications would be politicized or, at the very least, hard to define.
Essentially, the Illinois legislation is half-baked. But one thing is clear: Harmon and his colleagues in the Illinois Senate have sent the resounding message that white nationalists are scum, and that means something because it’s a message the Trump administration won’t send.
Most sane, non-white nationalist people see the value in sending a resounding message that racism threatens our society and values, and props to the Illinois Senate for threatening legal action. But do laws like these just send a message, or will they actually serve the greater function of stopping KKK and neo-Nazis from sending counterprotesters home in body bags? It’s entirely possible that in many places laws like these would fall into the wrong hands and end up hurting the political groups that bravely counter white nationalist violence.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes about criminal justice and libertarianism. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzywol.