Garland: ‘Our target is violence’

New Attorney General announces strategy to combat domestic terrorism



June 22, 2021 - 11:26 AM

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

On a sunny spring morning in 1995, a 7,000-pound bomb hidden in a Ryder rental truck blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children enrolled in a day care center on the second floor. The bomber, a young white supremacist named Timothy James McVeigh had perpetrated the worst domestic terrorism attack in American history.

The highest-ranking Justice Department official dispatched to Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the bombing was an attorney named Merrick B. Garland. The Oklahoma City case, he has said, was “the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”

McVeigh was executed in 2001.

That horrific act not only provided a human face to the then-shadowy phenomenon of domestic terrorism; it also prompted the federal government to focus attention and law-enforcement resources on the disaffected among us who were more than ready to kill to further their fanatical political, racial, economic or ideological aims. They, and their extremist grievances against minorities, gun regulation, government authority and other perceived threats, were more numerous and widespread than many Americans imagined.

But law enforcement efforts against domestic terror dissipated after 9/11, when the focus turned to the international terrorist threat. Nearly two decades later, the Trump administration’s stubborn reluctance to even acknowledge the existence of domestic terrorism made the threat almost an afterthought, even as it continued to metastasize.

Twenty-six years beyond the Oklahoma City bombing — and eight months beyond the Trump administration — the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are warning that the threat from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists is as high as it’s ever been.

USAF Airman assigned to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma use five-gallon buckets to separate small pieces of debris from the rubble, following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. From Airman Magazine June 1995 article “Answering a Call for Help”. Courtesy of the US National Archives.

The public official charged with meeting the threat posed by latter-day Timothy McVeighs is once again Merrick B. Garland, now attorney general of the United States. In a speech last week, he announced the Biden administration’s new strategy for combating domestic terrorism, a strategy much more focused and well thought out than anything his immediate predecessors devised.

The public faces of domestic terrorism these days are the wild-eyed insurrectionists who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Some are members of organized far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, while others acted on their own at the instigation of a now-former president who continues to bellow that the election that tossed him from office was rigged.

A growing number of our fellow Americans believe that violence is a valid form of political protest.

Part of a group or not, the Capitol insurrectionists are among the growing number of our fellow Americans who believe that violence is a valid form of political protest. A poll conducted earlier this year by the American Enterprise Institute is typical. Asked whether “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it,” 36% of Americans said yes. Among Republicans, it was 56%. Many, of course, are all talk; others are willing to act.

A recent survey by PRRI, Public Religion Research Institute, reported even more disturbing results. Asked whether they agreed or disagreed that “the government, media and financial worlds are controlled in this country by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a child sex-trafficking operation,” 23% of Republicans agreed. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Maybe Republicans are simply trying to punk the pollsters, although it’s more likely that this nation is facing a deeply serious problem.

In his remarks last week, Garland said that the Biden strategy would focus on sharing information more assiduously among government agencies, disrupting recruitment, preventing planned extremist activity before it’s perpetrated and exploring ways of changing the environment in which extremism flourishes.

That fourth objective is crucial. We live in a raucous, full-throated democracy; that’s as it should be. Hate speech — no matter how hateful, no matter how repugnant — is protected speech. Hateful words become intolerable, and unlawful, when they transmogrify into bloody deeds, as in Oklahoma City.

We are focused on violence, not ideology. … We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities.Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General

Garland put it this way: “We are focused on violence, not on ideology. … We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities.”