I didn’t want to write about the USA anymore. People keep telling me that I don’t know anything about events there, that it’s a different country than when I lived there, and that I don’t get how Donald Trump almost engineered a fascist coup of my former home. I am told that I am blinded by the good things he did for Israel, and that he didn’t really mean them anyway, because everything he does (by definition!) is done for selfish political reasons.
But maybe my not being personally involved (although it’s hard for anyone on the planet to be entirely uninvolved in what happens in 800-pound gorilla America) makes it possible for me to see some things more clearly. And what I see is that in the last few years the combination of changes in the media, the educational system, and popular culture, as well as the explosion of social media have given rise to some really dangerous trends, in the direction of less freedom of expression.
Trump is blamed by many for damaging democracy. But I think far more damage has been and is being done by the reaction to Donald Trump. Trump and his movement are being used as an excuse to push the country down a path toward less free expression and less free thought. A path toward a totally different kind of country than the one I grew up in, the one in which every kid’s response to being told to shut up was to say “it’s a free country.” Is it still a “free country?”
What prompted me to write about this was this recent announcement by Press Secretary Jen Psaki of a federal initiative to fight “domestic violent extremism”:
The January 6th assault on the Capitol and the tragic deaths and destruction that occurred underscored what we have long known: The rise of domestic violent extremism is a serious and growing national security threat.
The Biden administration will confront this threat with the necessary resources and resolve. We are committed to developing policies and strategies based on facts, on objective and rigorous analysis, and on a respect for constitutionally protected free speech and political activities.
Our initial work on DVE will broadly fall into three areas. The first is a tasking from President Biden sent to the ODNI today requesting a comprehensive threat assessment, coordinated with the FBI and DHS, on domestic violent extremism. This assessment will draw on the analysis from across the government and, as appropriate, nongovernmental organizations. …
The second will be the building of an NSC capability to focus on countering domestic violent extremism. As a part of this, the NSC will undertake a policy review effort to determine how the government can share information better about this threat, support efforts to prevent radicalization, disrupt violent extremist networks, and more. …
The third will be coordinating relevant parts of the federal government to enhance and accelerate efforts to address DVE. This considered, an NSC-convened process will focus on addressing evolving threats, radicalization, the role of social media, opportunities to improve information sharing, operational responses, and more.
The first red flag is the use of the Capitol incident as a justification for this project. Most of the participants in the Trump rally at the Ellipse in Washington believed that the election had not been fair, and that Trump should have become the President-Elect, not Biden. Some of these demonstrators moved to the Capitol, where a small number of them (“several hundred”) invaded the building, fought with Capitol police, committed acts of vandalism, and even murdered one police officer. A woman was fatally shot by police, and several others died in unclear circumstances. Not all those that entered the building committed vandalism or violent crimes. Some behaved like tourists.
This was not an insurrection or a coup attempt. Given that some of the people in the crowd had (legal) weapons, it could have turned into a shootout with police. But it didn’t. Because it was the US Capitol, the incident had great emotional resonance. But objectively it was not a big deal. There was only a relatively small number of “violent extremists” involved. And if normal security precautions had been taken – why they were not is a rather interesting question, given that the FBI and other agencies had prior intelligence that something was planned – nothing at all would have happened. Most of those involved have by now been identified and arrested.
The administration is citing this event as the justification for a federal crackdown on “domestic violent extremism” which even has an official abbreviation already, DVE. There has certainly been a lot of DVE in the US over the past year, but most of it took place in the context of anti-police demonstrations, looting, mass vandalism, and violent takeovers of multiple city blocks. One might hope that the administration also had these events in mind, but the fact is that Psaki studiously did not mention them. She only mentioned the Capitol break-in.
In the past decade there have been numerous other incidents that could be called DVE, some of them very serious mass-casualty events, like the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the 2015 San Bernardino jihadist attack, but she didn’t mention these either, although it would have made sense.
Indeed, an elaborate multi-agency initiative such as this would normally be justified on as wide a basis as possible – unless its announcement is part of a campaign to impugn a particular ideology that is held to be responsible for the Capitol break-in.
Trump was blamed for inflaming the crowd, and was impeached in record time and with almost no concern for procedure. Now he is about to be tried in the (newly Democrat-controlled) Senate, after he has left office, in a possibly unconstitutional and unnecessary proceeding.
There is only one possible way to understand these things, and that is that the new administration is mounting an aggressive campaign to discredit Trump’s movement, as well as to destroy it, by prosecuting outspoken Trumpists for inciting or conspiring to commit DVE.
Another red flag is Psaki’s mention of federal cooperation with “nongovernmental organizations” in assessing the threat. Such organizations might include the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a corrupt organization that is notoriously blind to Islamic or left-wing hate groups, and the ADL, which, while more respectable than the SPLC, has in recent years become quite close to the Democratic Party and also has difficulty perceiving hate from the Left. This suggests that the threat will be (surprise!) found to be primarily right-wing extremism or white nationalism. It is very unlikely that groups like BLM, Students for Justice in Palestine, or Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam will be found to be dangerous extremists.
A third red flag is the discussion of “information sharing” between agencies, which suggests that dossiers will be compiled on “extremists” and “extremist groups” and made available to other agencies. Left-leaning non-governmental groups will help in this. “Extremists” will then become targets either for prosecution, blacklisting, or the various forms of harassment with which anyone who has studied repressive governments is familiar.
Finally there is the mention of social media. Will government intervene in social media? How can that be consistent with the stated intention to “respect constitutionally protected free speech and political activities?” If they are not planning to censor expression, what exactly are they planning to do with respect to social media?
Every day we see different groups making lists, and saying that those who worked in Trump’s administration or campaigns, or even supported him, must be “held accountable.” Sometimes it means that people lose their jobs or their businesses are boycotted. Or perhaps nothing they write can be published.
In an era where many have started to turn against free speech – just try to speak freely if you are a university professor or student and see what happens – the government needs to defend the constitutional guarantee of free expression even more strongly.
Instead, it looks like the new administration is gearing up to use its law enforcement and intelligence agencies to stamp out the political opposition.