April 12, 2021

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What would actually happen if the feds fought QAnon like terrorists?

5 min read

The Proud Boys are self-described “proud Western chauvinists” known for wearing polo shirts, eschewing masturbation, and storming the U.S. Capitol. Their first leader was the founder of Vice magazine; their more recent chief was revealed to be a “prolific” federal snitch. They deny charges of white supremacy, but they participated in 2017’s racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, marching with neo-Nazis and Klansmen. And, as of Wednesday, they are officially designated terrorists in Canada, listed alongside al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

I’m not convinced we should place the Proud Boys in the same category as terrorists who have killed thousands. But let’s set aside the labels debate. The bigger question is whether we should treat far-right extremists — the Proud Boys, QAnon believers who want to do more than meme, others on the Charlottesville guest list willing to do real violence — like ISIS. Canada has answered affirmatively. Will Washington do the same?

It’s worth thinking through what that would actually mean. Suppose we took the advice of Robert Grenier, who directed the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center during the George W. Bush administration. The United States is “a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program,” Grenier argued in The New York Times last week. Without it, he warned, we can expect “endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction.” His recommendations, later elaborated on NPR, include law enforcement, “isolat[ing] and alienat[ing] the committed insurgents,” and a Senate conviction of former President Donald Trump to ban him from future federal office and “crush” his “veneer of invincibility.”

Grenier explicitly opposed new laws, agencies, and terrorist designations — and rightly so, as my colleague Ryan Cooper has ably argued. But others have suggested exactly those changes, and the Biden administration as well as other prominent Democrats are reportedly considering legislative options civil libertarians have derided as “Patriot Act 2.0.” (This is right up President Biden’s alley: He claimed in 2001 to have drafted the legislation that later became the Patriot Act.)

So let’s say we do it. What would happen?

One immediate outcome would be massive expansion of the surveillance state. If recent history is any indication, that would include unconstitutional bulk data collection, warrantless wiretapping and location tracking, and expanded biometric programs, especially facial recognition software. The feds would escalate their badgering of tech companies to make their products more pregnable to law enforcement, which by default would mean more pregnable to criminals, foreign agents, and other bad actors. The expansion of social media in the years since the original Patriot Act passed would offer enormous new troves of information for federal agencies to collect.

In the near term, this surveillance apparatus would be trained on the Proud Boys and their ilk — as well as their friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, or anyone with whom they have a relationship. Constitutionally-protected political speech would be used to justify domestic spying, and procedures like the “three hops” rule could make anyone a viable target. Then, whenever Democrats no longer control the White House and both houses of Congress, that spying would turn leftward, going after antifa or even nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters — as well as their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Simply visiting the “wrong” web page could be enough to bring you under scrutiny.

Then there’s the “hearts and minds” aspect of this counterterrorism idea, Grenier’s push to “isolate and alienate” the violent while patiently engaging the “mass of citizens — sullen, angry, and nursing their grudges — among whom the truly violent” are a recruiting minority, but a minority nonetheless.

Personal engagement, which Grenier recommends to all Americans, is certainly a good idea. But the isolation and alienation bit seems to be a project for the government, not citizens. What does it mean, as Grenier said on NPR, to “drive a wedge between those violent individuals and the people who may otherwise see them as reflecting their interests and fighting on their behalf”? Is this a call for federal propaganda? That can only worsen our national epistemic crisis. Or is it about purging extremists from normal social media channels, sending them to darker and more extreme apps and forums where their plans will be more difficult for law enforcement to discover?

Or would the alienation be more active, even violent? Maybe not in Grenier’s proposal, but I detect an openness to it among others pushing this plan. The Atlantic‘s Anne Applebaum believes “domestic, white supremacist terrorism” and “foreign, jihadi terrorism … demand a similar response.” Christopher Dickey at the Daily Beast would have us “move against [white nationalist terrorism] with the same kind of concerted international focus of attention and resources that were trained on Osama bin Laden.”

Both comments came in 2019, not in response to the storming of the Capitol, and neither outright recommends military action. But bin Laden was assassinated by the U.S. military, and we’ve responded to foreign, jihadi terrorism with indefinite detention and torture, bombs and drones, tanks and Special Forces.

Is the proposal to haul off Proud Boys to Gitmo without charge or trial? To send drones to take out their headquarters? With incidents like the Waco siege and the MOVE bombing in our history, this isn’t an intimation to be made lightly. In fact, it’s not an intimation to make at all. It is difficult to imagine a more efficient way to accelerate radicalization than to bring violent war on terror tactics home. Blowback would follow.

Here is one spot of good news, if you share my aversion to this vision of a domestic war on terror: In the United States, there is no legal label of “domestic terrorist organization” analogous to our label of “foreign terrorist organization” or Canada’s label for the Proud Boys. That means mounting this sort of counterterror response and incurring all its unintended and unwanted consequences would require real legislative changes. It could still happen, of course, but congressional dysfunction might, for once, work to secure our rights rather than curtail them.


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