We’re supposed to treat political extremists like terrorists now. At least, that’s the suggestion of longtime CIA officer Robert Grenier and a lot of other Democrats in our government.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Mr. Grenier suggested that the United States sits on the precipice of a “sustained wave of violent insurgency” and that, without a strong national response, extremists may be “capable of producing endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction.”
In a subsequent interview with NPR, Mr. Grenier made similar points, saying that he’s concerned not only about a small group of active extremists, but also the larger group from which they might draw “tacit support.” He suggests a program in which the government “must isolate and alienate committed insurgents from the population.” And while he doesn’t suggest that U.S. citizens are the equivalent of Iraqi or Afghan insurgents, he does point to U.S. experiences abroad as providing valuable lessons.
Though some may be inclined to agree with Mr. Grenier, his ideas are dangerous. His interpretation of the threat of terrorism in the U.S. is patently false, and the cure he suggests would be far worse than the disease it’s meant to treat.
The notion that the United States faces some grand threat from terrorists of any kind is nonsense. The truth is, we’re all as likely to be killed by an act of terror as we are to be killed by a falling asteroid. The idea that some group of domestic terrorists poses a serious risk is just as silly as the assertion that Islamic terrorists are bound to strike.
While a variety of recent reports state that the threat of domestic extremism is on the rise, these studies often fail to distinguish between actual attacks and mere plotting. Those that do make the distinction often pay no attention to whether a plan was actually feasible. Moreover, definitions of “terrorism” are not always consistent. As a result, the true risks are often oversold.
The dangers of counterterrorist measures, on the other hand, are very real. Once the government gets the green light to deal with these so-called existential threats, it’ll start to wage war on its own citizens.
The idea of using the tools of foreign intervention at home is not a novel one. A variety of tools of war — from weapons and tactics, to organizational structures and military mentalities — have come to be used at home. And whenever they are, the American public always loses.
Take, for example, the never-ending “war” on drugs. The U.S. government seeks to destroy external enemies like South American drug cartels, but also internal enemies within the drug trade: U.S. citizens. But dealers of illicit drugs don’t have brick-and-mortar businesses, and drug users don’t advertise their habits. So what has government done? They’ve turned the tools of war they’ve used abroad inward in an effort to find these “enemies.”
That’s how we get aggressive police tactics like no-knock raids. SWAT teams, modeled explicitly after elite units in Vietnam, are used tens of thousands of times a year — more than 100 times every day. The result? Innocent people have their property damaged or their children traumatized or permanently injured. Others have been killed. And all of this happens with virtual impunity for law enforcement.
The war on terror brought similar tools home, including a cadre of new surveillance techniques. But instead of ferreting out unknown terrorists, these tactics have instead been used by law enforcement for any number of mundane reasons. Take, for instance, Stingrays — devices that gather data like location and other personal identifiers from cellphones. This technology, originally intended for use in catching terrorists, is now used by local law enforcement with little transparency or oversight.
And while we should all be concerned about the government using tools of war against its own citizens, we should also consider that those most likely to be abused with these tools are communities of color. The majority of SWAT raids are conducted against minorities. The “best” surveillance technologies consistently misidentify black and brown faces. These new strategies would be no different. As opposed to combating far-right domestic extremists, these strategies would undoubtedly see more use intimidating Black Lives Matter protesters and those fighting for things like police reform.
Calls from folks like Mr. Grenier will only lead to more of the same. Trying to protect the public from some faceless, unidentified “domestic terror threat,” federal and local law enforcement will end up using the tools of war against the general public.
And they’ll tell us, with a straight face, that it’s for our own good.
• Abby Blanco is an associate professor of Economics at Bellarmine University, a Young Voices contributor, and the coauthor of “Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism.” Follow her on Twitter @Abigail_R_Hall.