On August 3, a white supremacist attacked a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing at least twenty-two and wounding dozens more. Espousing racist conspiracy theories about a “Hispanic invasion,” the killer’s murderous rampage was cold-blooded — and appeared to target Latinx people. It’s only the latest high-profile act of white supremacist violence. And it comes at a time when Donald Trump and other Republican politicians are mainstreaming racist rhetoric.
Faced with this climate, many well-meaning people are looking for a way to counter the very real danger of white supremacist violence. Some Washington Post columnists, CNN guests, the FBI Agents Association, and presidential hopeful Joe Biden are touting one particular “solution”: to create a new law countering “domestic terrorism.”
The argument is simple: due to a lack of a domestic terrorism statute, the FBI is somehow powerless to stop these acts of violence. Such a law would grant the FBI more surveillance powers. A new domestic terrorism statute would allow the agency to investigate and prosecute far-right violence.
But this approach is misguided — and dangerous. First of all, the FBI is not an ally in the fight against racism. It has, in fact, often thwarted racial justice advocates and continues to be defined by deep-seated institutional racism. With many activists rejecting the carceral state or counterterrorism framework, and embracing police and prison abolition, whether a law enforcement agency can ever counter white supremacy is a subject of debate.
What is extremely clear is that the FBI has extraordinary tools at its disposal. It operates under the loosest guidelines at any point since the post-Hoover era reforms. These current guidelines allow the FBI to investigate an individual without any factual predicate that the person has committed a crime or poses a threat to national security. The FBI is allowed to attend public meetings without disclosing its participation. The FBI has conducted counterterrorism investigations into nonviolent left-wing groups, including civil rights organizations. In other words, the FBI is hardly powerless to investigate and surveil activities it labels “domestic terrorism.” The FBI’s history of abuse, in fact, raises a troubling likelihood: a domestic terrorism law would almost certainly be used to silence left-wing dissent. […]