Only Racism Can Explain America’s Counterterrorism Policies

Most nights, the United States keeps more than 30,000 of its undocumented residents locked in detention centers. Many of these detainees have lived in the U.S. for decades, obey its laws, contribute to its economy, and give back to their local communities. Some are the parents of U.S. citizens.


Maintaining this state of affairs costs our government billions of dollars each year, while robbing certain municipal economies of their lifeblood — and many law-abiding undocumented immigrants, of their peace of mind, well-being, and the right to live in the country they call home.


But at the end of the day, all this is the necessary and acceptable price of keeping Americans safe from the threat of immigrant terrorists — or so our government believes. As Franklin Foer writes in his Atlantic cover story on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):



Like any large organization, ICE has its share of bad apples. But officials from the Obama administration vociferously countered any notion that ICE is teeming with racists. Carlos Guevara, who served as an adviser to the homeland-security leadership, told me, “There are a lot of good officers … And I don’t think a lot of them feel great about picking up abuelita”—someone’s grandmother—“or somebody who’s been here for 20 years, much less being part of a policy separating kids from parents.”

To navigate this moral thicket, ICE officers tell themselves comforting stories. The agency was founded, after all, in the aftermath of 9/11, when the government had failed to prevent evildoers from infiltrating the homeland and killing thousands. As one former ice official told me, “You numb yourself by saying everything we do has a national-security focus. By God, if we let this one slip by, it’s the tip of the iceberg. We never know when we’re confronted with the real threat.”



Foer goes on to note that “statistically speaking, an immigrant who has lived in the United States for decades, has an immaculate criminal record, and comes from Central America (like many ICE targets) poses so negligible a national-security threat that it is virtually nonexistent.”


But “virtually nonexistent” is synonym for “not impossible.” And our government cares so deeply about keeping its citizens safe, it’s willing to detain and deport abuelitas to combat the hypothetical threat of immigrant terrorists.


And yet, for some strange reason, our leaders are seemingly indifferent to the actual threat posed by white nationalist terrorists.


Last year, three men affiliated with the “Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters 3% Militia” allegedly bombed a mosque in Minnesota, attempted to bomb a women’s health clinic, and damaged a stretch of railroad track in Illinois. Initially, the three-man militia of Michael Hari, Michael McWhorter, and Joe Morris appeared to have acted on their own volition. But a newly released search warrant suggests that, unlike the most recent Islamist terror attacks in the U.S., the trio’s attack on Illinois’s railroad system was not an act carried out by “lone wolves,” but rather one ordered by the leadership of a broader terrorist organization. As the Daily Beast reports:



Shortly after the trio’s arrest in March, McWhorter and Morris turned on Hari, offering investigators information on Hari’s communications, according to a search warrant for the contents of an email account with Protonmail, an encrypted email service.

McWhorter “told agents that Hari talked about ‘higher ups’ and identified two people Hari identified as ‘Ben Lewis’ and ‘Congo Joe,’” according to an affidavit in support of the search warrant.

Morris told investigators that Hari used the ProtonMail account to communicate with those “higher ups,” as well as approximately 13 other similar militia groups. The White Rabbits’ “higher ups” gave them orders for “missions,” McWhorter and Morris said.



White nationalist terrorism is no aberrant development. Since 9/11, white, right-wing extremists have murdered 73 Americans on U.S. soil, a figure comparable to the 104 killed by Jihadist militants. And yet, bizarrely, the Republican Party and Trump administration — which have both championed a zero-tolerance approach to policing other kinds of terrorism — have actively undermined attempts to protect Americans from white nationalist militias.


In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning that the combination of a weak economy and the election of an African-American president was spurring a wave of white supremacist radicalization, which had made “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology” into “the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” The ensuing years did, in fact, witness a surge in white nationalist violence. Still, incomprehensibly, Republican elected officials condemned the prescient report and forced the government to withdraw it. Two years later, the Washington Post revealed that the analytical team behind the findings had been “effectively eviscerated.


Since taking office, the president has canceled grants to organizations dedicated to combating violent white supremacist groups, while his administration has tried to refocus counterterrorism efforts exclusively on Islamists. Most confoundingly, he hasn’t merely neglected to target white nationalist terrorists — but has declined to cease disseminating messages that aid and abet their cause.


Trump has said that immigrants have “strongly and violently changed [Europe’s] culture” — and that immigrants threaten to do the same to the U.S. He has retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda from a British fascist organization, and appointed members of anti-Muslim think tanks — which have called for shutting down mosques across the United States — to top administration positions. One of his White House’s former senior advisers wrote in 2016 that “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” was a threat to the survival of the American republic. During his presidential campaign, Trump himself called for banning all Muslims from the United States and jokingly suggested that “Second Amendment people” might be justified in preventing the appointment of liberal Supreme Court justices through violence. The administration has never apologized for any of these actions despite copious evidence that they have provided aid and comfort to terrorists. From the Daily Beast report:



In interviews with investigators, the group cited extreme anti-Muslim views as the motivation for the alleged mosque bombing. Hari also portrayed himself as a national security expert. In a bizarre design proposal to President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, Hari expressed white nationalist views, calling the wall a chance for “American people to defend their nation and its Anglo-Saxon heritage, Western culture and English language.”



In sum: Preventing the virtually nonexistent threat of terrorist attacks by longtime, undocumented residents of the United States is worth maintaining a multibillion-dollar bureaucracy that terrorizes the friends and relatives of American citizens – but combating the active threat of white nationalist militias is not important enough to compel the president to cease echoing their propaganda.


What could possibly explain the dissonance in these policies?