“At no time since 1996 have I been more concerned about the state of affairs as it relates to extremism, hate, domestic terrorism and authoritarianism,” said Professor Peter Simi, who has made terrorism the focus of his studies.
The sociology professor at Chapman University in Orange, California, who was once embedded with a neo-Nazi group for research purposes, spoke at the program, “Extending Justice 3: They Don’t Look Like Extremists or Terrorists,” held Aug. 4 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.
“Quite simply, our system of democracy is under attack,” primarily from internal threats, Simi said. “It’s a constellation of forces that have been unleashed, some intentional and some less so that are creating a perfect storm.
‘There are no easy solutions, and unfortunately no one-size-fits-all approach that we can employ to counter these problems,” he said, adding that we’ve waited far too long to address these issues, and for too long people have minimized them.
He spoke of a “world view gaining momentum that rejects democracy.” This includes white supremacy, which Simi said is not exclusively about race but has varied motivations and permutations. Rather, he said, it’s a social system that include such nonwhite adherents as Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys and Nick Fuentes.
The attack on democracy includes forms of terrorism, one of which is the lone man, whose strategy appears to be to disconnect from others. Lone actors “appear to be one-offs,” Simi said, but are ideologues and, like Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof, celebrated as martyrs.
A multipronged approach is needed to address these threats, and that threats to public officials, such as to behead infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, represent an “ends-justify-the-means mentality” but produce almost no consequences, he said.
These threats represent a legitimation crisis, Simi said. Record low approval ratings for Congress, the Supreme Court and the media show that “we are awash … in a failure of trust,” he said. The status quo is not working, and believing in the arc of justice and a demographically diverse future is not enough, he added.
Instead, Simi called for a major national initiative along the lines of the New Deal that tackles economic inequality, racial and other disparities and includes a reinvestment in civic life and a recommitment to anti-authoritarianism.
Retired Judge Bernice Donald of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals then moderated a discussion with U.S. District Judge John Tunheim of the District of Minnesota, Police Chief Anthony Holloway of St. Petersburg, Florida, and Justin Bingham, city prosecutor for Spokane, Washington, and the outgoing chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, which sponsored the program.
Holloway spoke of the change he’s seen in his 38 years in law enforcement, including 16 as police chief. Now, “I talk to my intel section at least three times a week,” he said, and they are always evaluating possible threats to sporting events, judges’ dockets and politicians visiting the area, among others.
“Lots of people feel empowered to threaten that they didn’t before,” said Tunheim, and Bingham added that “lots of extremists look respectable.”
Law enforcement tries to spot extremism in their ranks during training, Holloway said, including with polygraphs, because “if they have that in them, they’re going to act on it sooner or later,” and they need to be removed from the force at least while it’s being investigated.
Officials also worry about guns. Holloway said that with Florida’s new law, which allows anyone to carry a concealed weapon, combined with the state’s Stand Your Ground law, “officers are worried… about how they’re going to respond.”
Bingham said the “constellation of forces” that Simi spoke of include class resentment, the news feeds that increase polarization and social media, which “just blows everything up.”
Guns give people a tool to express their resentment, Tunheim said. “Just having it gives them some feeling of protection from elites.”
Despite the threats, the panel saw promise in some initiatives. Tunheim spoke of a deradicalization program his district in Minnesota set up. They had a number of young defendants fueled by social media trying to join ISIS. Rather than sentence them to 40 years in prison, the judges consulted with programs in Denmark, Germany and the UK, and implemented an intensive supervision program that includes probationary sentences and supervised release with community mentors. It’s difficult, he conceded, because “you’re trying to change their viewpoints” and get them on the right path. But he’s been happy with the results, which have also worked in some instances for white supremacists, and they have taught other districts about the program.
Additionally, “education plays a role in getting us to a better place,” said Tunheim. Money targeted at STEM education has taken funding away from history and civics, he said, and now kids can’t answer simple questions about our government. “This is a national tragedy,” he said. His district has set up education centers in their courthouses and hope to get up to 10,000 5th-10th grade students coming in on field trips to learn about civics.
We can never give up on addressing these issues, said Donald. “Failure is not an option for us,” she said, and urged having “difficult, complex, respectful conversations across difference.”