The Historical Amnesia and Self Delusion Behind the “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act”

Violent, mass deaths at the hands of one person — like the racist Buffalo assassin — or a group of religious fanatics — like the 9/11…

Violent, mass deaths at the hands of one person — like the racist Buffalo assassin — or a group of religious fanatics — like the 9/11 hijackers — inevitably produce emotions of sorrow, rage, and, among House and Senate members, an impulse to “do something.” And usually in the days and weeks after such atrocities that impulse leads to hasty, unwise decisions.

Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed — without any real debate or even preliminary investigation into how the attacks happened — the now-infamous USA PATRIOT Act. A key provision of that sweeping surveillance legislation, the Section 215 telephone metadata program, was touted by proponents as vital and necessary to prevent another mass casualty terrorist attack. It was neither, and not shockingly, it never worked — yet it took 18 years to kill that ineffectual program. Which brings me to another hasty, unwise piece of legislation the House may well pass this week: HR 350, the presumptuously named “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022.”

Less than a month ago, the bill was pulled from the House Rules Committee hearing schedule due to opposition from a number of Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) members. But as of yesterday, it was back on track for a House floor vote under a CLOSED rule — i.e., no amendments, except the one offered by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY). That amendment makes only cosmetic changes to the bill.

HR 350 still creates new, totally unnecessary “domestic terrorism” bureaucracies inside of the Justice and Homeland Security departments — two departments that have been monitoring and prosecuting violent, white supremacist extremists…in the FBI’s case, for decades. And its “First Amendment protection” language will in no way stop the FBI from investigating individuals or groups without ever having to get a warrant from a judge.

The public’s desire to see all potential threats, particularly terrorist threats, thwarted before lives are lost is natural and understandable. Unfortunately, past experience and existing published, peer reviewed research tells us that such a goal is unattainable. A key reason is that, as the FBI itself has acknowledged in an internal study in 2012, there is no way to predict who will become the next Mohamed Atta or Timothy McVeigh.[1]

Also of note is an October 5, 2021, Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) report on major criminal justice trends, based on CCJ’s analysis of the FBI’s aggregated annual crime information reported by law enforcement agencies nationwide. As CCJ observed, the homicide clearance rate has declined from a high of 82% in 1976 to 50% by 2020.[2]

The fact that half of murders go unsolved — some for years, decades or even forever — should be a warning sign that the notion that the FBI or any other law enforcement agency can, with any consistency or precision, predict, much less preempt, potential violent acts is a public policy version of magical thinking. Passing a bill that claims it will prevent politically or racially motivated violence will only prove that historical amnesia and self delusion are more powerful than cold, hard facts.

We cannot “FBI” our way out of a political and social problem as widespread as the kind that motivated the Buffalo shooter to do what he did. An NPR piece out this week laid bare the magnitude of the challenge we face as a nation:

A recent poll, conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that one in three American adults now believes in a version of replacement theory.

Racism has been embedded in our political fabric from the Founding, and we continue to pay a price for that moral and political failure to the present day. It is bitterly ironic that the party that freed America’s slave population — the Grand Old Party (GOP) — ultimately became a haven for hard core Southern Democrat racists like the late Strom Thurmond.

Not every Republican or self-described conservative embraces America’s ongoing racist insanity. That there is heavy overlap between those GOP members who reject both racism and Trumpism seems obvious to this analyst. But many of those who reject both are no longer in positions of power — either in the Congress, state legislatures, or party organizations.

What is also obvious is that a sitting American president telling one overtly racist domestic organization with a history of violence to “Stand back and stand by” was seen by all others with similar views and agendas as a green light, that their time was seemingly at hand. These are problems that require political and social solutions, not law enforcement and surveillance-centric ones.

The forces of hate can be defeated and driven from political power. Solid police work — not de facto entrapment schemes — can help prevent, but not eliminate, the threat of targeted violence. The trick is doing these things without taking America ever deeper down the road of becoming a permanent Surveillance State where the Bill of Rights is a quaint artifact of an earlier age. HR 350 is, unfortunately, one more step on the wrong road.

[1] Murtaza Hussain and Cora Currier, “”U.S. Military Operations Are Biggest Motivation for Homegrown Terrorists, FBI Study Finds,” The Intercept, October 11, 2016.

[2] Homicide Trends: What You Need to Know, Council on Criminal Justice, October 5, 2021. Available online at