I am not going to jump on the bandwagon and categorically call what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday an act of domestic terrorism. At least not yet. There are still too many unknowns. All we know so far is that James Alex Fields, a 20-year old man from Ohio, left his home to join an ‘alt-right’ rally to protest the removal of a statue of American Civil War general Robert E. Lee. A far-right torchlight rally was held on Friday evening and tempers boiled over. The following day Mr. Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters in the downtown core of Charlottesville, killing one and wounding dozens before fleeing the scene: he was arrested and has been charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death.
What Mr. Fields’ motive was is unclear so far. We know that he is a supporter of US President Donald Trump, but then again so are tens of millions of Americans. We do not have a manifesto or a social media statement or any other indication explaining why he did what he did. Perhaps the investigation will shed some light on all this.
The bigger issue, and one that we can speculate and comment on, is what is the threat to the US from far right/alt right/white supremacist/neo-Nazi movements? The answer, at least to me, is severe, orders of magnitude higher than the threat of Islamist extremism, which gets a lot more attention and is erroneously seen as an existential threat to America.
I am not a far right expert by any stretch but it does not take a specialist to see that the hatred and coded calls for violence by those on the extreme right on the political spectrum is a very, very serious issue for the US. Proponents take to mass media and social media to call for ‘taking back America’ and are able to issue venomous hatred under the protection of the US First Amendment provisions. White supremacists see their country at risk from immigration and other ills and advocate a return to some mythical historical Utopia where only their kind were the owners of America (damn those pesky first nations!).
All of this is supported by a President who feeds these feelings of decline and exclusion through his ill-considered tweets and speeches blaming all of America’s ills on the Other. The fact that he could not even condemn the carnage in Virginia without scoring political points is telling (The Economist accused him of ‘moral failure’). No, this is not all President Trump’s fault: these hatemongers have been around since at least the end of the Civil War. But he is doing nothing to make things better – quite the contrary. You can see how during his campaign and into his presidency his statements and behaviours provide the far right with oxygen.
The bottom line is that the US is facing a very serious 100% homegrown violent extremist threat emanating from white Americans. Is it terrorism? Well, it is if it meets the three criteria I cite as evidence: an act of serious violence carried out against civilians for political/religious/ideological reasons. The incident in Charlottesville satisfies the first two for sure, and may very well have been ideologically motivated. If we find that to be the case that makes it an act of domestic terrorism.
This threat shows no signs of ebbing. In fact, it seems to be growing in strength. I would be very surprised if we do not see more hateful rallies and acts of violence as a fringe of US society lashes out to protect what it sees as the ‘erosion’ of ‘real’ America.
The US at all levels – government, law enforcement, civil society – needs to step up and do it now. People cannot be permitted to call for violence and have others shrug their shoulders saying that it is all freedom of speech. No, the US is not on the precipice of collapse from this form of violence, just as jihadi violence will never pose an existential threat, but the risks are real. The time has come for more level-headed Americans to take a stand and reject this scourge. Pity the President is not among that cohort.