A Citizen Army to Identify Domestic Terrorists? A Complicated Question! Social, Economic and Political Transformation Is Needed to Combat Violent Right-Wing Forces
Bill Berkowitz and Gale Bataille / BuzzFlash
(February 1, 2021) —Americans were shocked and appalled when a right-wing insurrectionary mob invaded the Capitol on January 6. However, researchers and activists who have tracked and documented the rise of right-wing movements, saw this coming – even if not the specific events of the Capitol attack.
Frederick Clarkson, a longtime researcher and writer about right-wing movements, wasn’t surprised. “It is not just law enforcement that missed the rise of the far right in all of its dimensions — which is one of the central stories of our time as events at the capitol have demonstrated,” Clarkson told me in an email. “Certainly all of our institutions, from journalism to academia and our political parties have failed to adequately contend with this.”
In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, the question is: What should be done to address the rise of extremist right-wing organizations and individuals in the US and internationally?
There is widespread support for the arrest and charging of participants in the assault on the Capitol. To that end, many Americans — including family members and friends, have taken to examining photos and video from the attempted coup, and reporting the identities of offenders to law enforcement agencies.
Don Winslow, a prolific and popular writer of 22 crime and mystery novels, and an anti-Trump political activist, is proposing a “Citizen Army” of detectives to identify and report domestic terrorists to law enforcement agencies. While at first take, identifying ultra-right militants sounds like a useful strategy, there are also major downsides.
During the run-up to the 2020 Election, Winslow and director/producer/screenwriter Shane Salerno “lit up social media with their condemnation of President Trump and his administration. Sleekly produced, emotionally resonant and factually informed (and in some cases featuring A-list talent), the videos raised the level of political discourse on Twitter (where Winslow has nearly 574,000 followers) and the bar on political ads in general,” The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara reported in early (pre-attempted-coup) January.
According to The Los Angeles Times, McNamara, the pre-election videos “Distributed on social media, where Winslow has long been vocal about his disgust with Trump, … may or may not have changed any minds, but they were undeniably successful, in many cases reaching far more viewers than official campaign videos.
One short focusing on Pennsylvania, which featured music by Bruce Springsteen, got more than 9 million views; Jeff Daniels did the voice-over for another about Michigan that was watched by more than 5 million; and the three videos released ahead of the Georgia runoff have gotten 10 million views at the time of publication for this story.”
In a January 18 video, Winslow focused on the aftermath of Trumpism warning “that Trump will take charge of an ‘army of domestic terrorists’ after leaving office and start a civil war in the United States,” Newsweek’s Khaleda Rahman reported. Winslow’s “video urges Americans to ‘fight back’ by forming a ‘citizen army’ to monitor the online activity of extremists and aid authorities.”
The 2 minute 20 second video from Don Winslow Films, rolls out photos of some of those arrested after the Capitol insurrection, while stating: “They are hidden among us, disguised behind regular jobs. They are your children’s teachers. They work in supermarkets, malls, doctor’s offices and many of them are police officers and soldiers.” The video maintains that Trump will “play the role of arsonist and fireman. Therefore what is needed now more than ever is an army of citizen detectives. … whose weapons will be computers and cell phones.”
Winslow told Newsweek that the video “is to put forth the idea of creating a real network of citizen detectives to uncover and expose white supremacy and domestic terrorism. For citizen detectives to become amateur intelligence analysts that would feed information to law enforcement.”
Could a Citzen Army become a useful strategy for identifying the thousands of Americans that have joined neo-Nazi, white supremacist outfits such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Boogaloo Bois, QAnon, and others that pose a clear and present danger for committing domestic terrorism?
The concern with Winslow’s suggested initiative is that it will sow even more disunity, fear and suspicion among the American public. One of the major pitfalls of any Citizen Army is overreach. Will neighbors be spying on neighbors? Will this lead to more distrust, more fear, further retreat into ideological bubbles? Will this initiative be targeted at individuals and groups that pose real threats of violence or become more broadly aimed at the thousands of Trump supporters holding peaceful demonstrations. Does a Citizen Army pose a threat to free speech and peaceful assembly?
For many years, organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, the Anti-Defamation League, among others have identified and tracked the activities of extreme right-wing groups, and individual members of those groups, albeit mostly their leaders.
Since January 6, numerous people have taken it upon themselves to identify, and share with authorities, perpetrators of the attempted coup.
A query put to Bill Berkowitz’s Facebook followers elicited major concern that a Citizen Army might pave the way for a dystopian future.
· First thought, the Phoenix Project in Vietnam where personal grudges were settled by pointing the CIA assassins in a certain direction
· Problems — need for a tight definition of what constitutes a domestic terrorist. How do you prevent people from reporting people who have the wrong skin color, wear the wrong clothing, or just make them mad. McCarthyism is a real possibility.
· Americans become even more distrustful of each other. Personal grievances could be turned into a weapon, as has been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tribal leaders claim their opponents are terrorists.
In an email exchange, Devin Burghart, President & Executive Director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR), identified several potential benefits of such a mobilization. “First, Winslow’s call is an important reminder that the threat from far-right growth is a community challenge, not merely an issue for law enforcement. We need to reach people before they step on the conveyor-belt of far-right radicalization before they become the next far-right bomber or shooter. If we wait for law enforcement to handle the problem, it will always be too late. Also, given numerous far-right efforts to infiltrate law enforcement, we also need the community to hold those in law enforcement to account.
“Second, Winslow’s call of a Citizen’s Army echoes the work that our, and other organizations, have done for years. Since 1983, IREHR has trained individuals and community groups to unmask movements, organizations, and individuals that threaten democracy and human rights.”
Frederick Clarkson, Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank in Somerville, MA is more troubled by the prospect: “a ‘citizen army’ of ‘detectives’ is a misguided call to a kind of political vigilantism that may do far more harm than good… If you listen to Winslow’s video and substitute the word ‘communists’ for ‘radical extreme conservatives’ which he says is the equivalent of ‘domestic terrorists,’ you will see how this project will not lead to an increase useful bodies of knowledge about anti-democratic and criminal elements, and constructive ways to contend with them, but [rather] to further confusion, polarization and societal paranoia.”
“There is a role for people with social media platforms as large as Winslow’s,” Clarkson added. “But it is not this…They could start, for example, to employ basic vocabulary available from the above mentioned organizations that will help us have more than vague epithets to guide the conversations we need to have in our society in this critical moment in our history.”
Both PRA’s Clarkson and IREHR’s Burghart believe that more support is needed for organizations that have been tracking extremist movements for many years. “Their work needs not only to be more widely disseminated and understood, but they deserve public support,” Clarkson said. IREHR’s Burghart pointed out that “it’s essential to use community-based investigative research and strategic organizing to counter racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, nativism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.” He suggested that those interested in taking up Winslow’s call “sign up for a training session at irehr.org, or download our app, ‘Trepper: The Anti-Bigotry App,’ which includes a toolkit researching the far-right.”
Unleashing an army of informers is not the answer. There does need to be increased support for the community organizations that have worked to combat right-wing movements, and domestic terrorism must to be a highest priority for government agencies such as Homeland Security, the FBI and the Justice Department. However, these efforts are not sufficient to undo the penetration of racist/fascist/conspiratorial ideas (and their expression as domestic terrorism) into the fabric of our uncivil society.
Some other strategies might include:
· A formal investigation followed by a campaign to combat the big lies of the Trump administration especially that the election was stolen. This must be accompanied by the passage of the John Lewis voting rights act and a public education campaign about election security.
· Public education at every level about the history and consequences of racism and totalitarianism as well specific information about current ultra-right wing movements. This needs to include primary and secondary school education as well. It’s shocking that two thirds of secondary students are unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust by the Nazis, and they probably know even less about the history of slavery in this country.
· A public wellness campaign to provide families and communities with strategies and tools to re-engage the thousands of individuals who have fallen into the vortex of conspiracy theories. Tobacco cessation and mental health awareness campaigns have had some success. Why not bring these public health approaches to bear?
· Hold social media in all forms accountable for the spread of disinformation—understanding that this is a very complex undertaking as free speech versus hate speech hang in the balance.
· The Biden Administration must successfully pass and implement its pandemic and economic relief program (including its interrelated climate and racial justice initiatives) so people experience effective government and the possibility of change that actually affects people’s lives.
Coming to grips with the nightmare of the Trump years is not going to be immediate or easy. Concrete action is a necessity for this time. Failure by the Biden administration to deal with economic inequality, social injustice and the coronavirus pandemic will almost guarantee a continued fractured society.
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