By Thomas Cullen
Cullen is U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
Last month, federal agents in Maryland arrested a United States Coast Guard officer and said he was plotting to assassinate Democratic members of Congress, prominent television journalists and others. The officer, Lt. Christopher Hasson, apparently inspired by a right-wing Norwegian terrorist who slaughtered 77 people in 2011, stockpiled firearms and ammunition and researched locations around Washington to launch his attacks, according to investigators. Fortunately, the F.B.I. arrested him before he could act.
This frightening case is just one of several recent reminders that white supremacy and far-right extremism are among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States.
Regrettably, over the past 25 years, law enforcement, at both the federal and state levels, has been slow to respond. This is in part because of the limited number of enforcement tools available to prosecutors. But there are steps that can be taken to help the police and prosecutors address this growing threat — including, on the federal level, a domestic terrorism law.
In 2017, hate crimes, generally defined as criminal acts motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, increased by about 17 percent nationally, to 7,175 from 6,121 (the number of police agencies reporting crimes also rose, by about 6 percent); in my state, Virginia, they were up by nearly 50 percent, to 202 from 137.
Killings committed by individuals and groups associated with far-right extremist groups have risen significantly. Seventy-one percent of the 387 “extremist related fatalities in the United States” from 2008 to 2017 were committed by members of far-right and white-supremacist groups, according the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Islamic extremists were responsible for 26 percent.
The rising scourge of domestic hate has been underscored by particularly heinous acts in the past few years. In 2015, an avowed white supremacist murdered nine black congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Sout Carolina. Last year in Kentucky, a white man with a history of making racist remarks was charged with shooting and killing two African-Americans in their 60s at a grocery store after trying to enter a nearby black church. Several months ago, an assailant shouting anti-Semitic slurs stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with a semiautomatic rifle and murdered 11 people.
Virginia, too, has experienced extremist violence. In August 2017, several hundred people — mainly young white men heavily influenced by white-nationalist propaganda — converged on Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest the possible removal of Confederate monuments from public parks. Among other odious acts, these “Unite the Right” protesters marched with lighted torches on the campus of the University of Virginia. They chanted “Jews will not replace us!” before attacking a small group of students and counter-protesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
The following day, some of these Unite the Right enthusiasts attacked and injured counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Their violence culminated when a white supremacist from Ohio drove his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring about 30 others.
In 2009, Congress took an important step in arming federal investigators to deal with hate crimes by passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law makes it possible to prosecute as hate crimes violent acts committed against victims because of their race, color, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity or disability. The law provides stringent maximum penalties, including life imprisonment, if someone is killed during a hate crime.
But the hate crime law has its limitations. First, it requires proof that an individual acted because of a specific proscribed animus enumerated in the statute. That means investigators must uncover concrete evidence that the defendant was primarily motivated by, for example, racist or anti-Semitic views. Although this evidence exists in many hate crimes, it proves elusive in others.
Second, because it is a federal statute, prosecutors must prove a “jurisdictional” element, such as travel by the defendant across state lines. For those hate crimes that do not involve interstate travel or communication, the law can’t be invoked.
Given these limitations, elected officials should consider providing law enforcement with additional tools. At the federal level, this could include a domestic-terrorism statute that would allow for the terrorism prosecution of people who commit acts of violence, threats and other criminal activities aimed at intimidating or coercing civilians.
State officials can update and strengthen existing hate-crime laws, many of which do not include protections for some of the categories of people listed in the federal hate crimes law. Although many states have expanded these protections, the Indiana State Senate this week moved to weaken a proposed hate crime bill. In addition, states can authorize localities to place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on demonstrations that will likely result in widespread violence and other criminal activity, like the rally in Charlottesville.
At both the federal and state levels, immediate steps are required to curtail the alarming rise of hate crimes and extremist violence in this country.