Opinion: Domestic terrorism is a threat we can't ignore

Opinion by Bennie G. ThompsonUpdated: Wed, 02 Nov 2022 19:12:45 GMTSource: CNNEditor's Note: Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Securit

Opinion by Bennie G. Thompson

Updated: Wed, 02 Nov 2022 19:12:45 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Since the 2016 election campaign, rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans in Congress has inspired right-wing domestic terrorists to violence. In this time, we have seen an uptick of extremists of all types willing to engage in political violence, we've seen militia groups mobilized to violence for the 2020 election and we've seen political violence continue throughout and beyond Trump's presidency.

This August, after the execution of a federal search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, violent rhetoric from the far-right escalated exponentially, including -- shockingly -- calls for civil war. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, warned that if former President Trump is prosecuted, there will be "riots in the streets." MAGA Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona compared the FBI to "brown shirts," a term used to describe Nazi storm troopers.

Sadly, public figures on the extreme right are crippling our efforts to curb this violence by attacking the rule of law and continuing to give extremists the go-ahead, either tacitly or expressly.

In January 2021, hours before the tragic January 6 attack on the US Capitol, Trump declared to his followers on the National Mall, "[I]f you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore." GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama told Trump supporters that "[t]oday is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass" while telling the crowd that "our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes and sometimes their lives," before asking, "Are you willing to do the same?" And no one will forget GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri pumping his fist in solidarity as rioters assembled at the Capitol demanding the election be overturned.

In the aftermath of the attack, insurrectionists testified in court that they were only "following presidential orders," when they breached the Capitol and threatened the lives of all who work there.

Make no mistake, the January 6 attack was not an isolated incident. I have followed the threat of domestic terrorism for nearly two decades, have watched it grow and have urged action to combat it. According to the Department of Homeland Security, it is the greatest terrorism threat to our homeland. And from what we've seen after the 2020 election, it is also clearly a threat to the rule of law and our democracy.

Since 2015, the year Trump declared his candidacy for president, there have been 333 domestic terrorism plots or attacks in the United States -- an all-time high. Right-wing extremists have perpetrated 80% of those attacks, resulting in 91 tragic deaths.

Our public spaces increasingly face violence. Mass shootings, hostage taking and other violent plots have reduced state capitols, grocery stores, schools, houses of worship, and concerts to crime scenes. Just last week, the federal government released a bulletin warning that there is a heightened threat to next week's midterm elections by a rise in violent domestic extremism.

This rise in domestic terrorism comes at a particularly dangerous moment for the country: A recent survey found that half of the country believes "in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States," and more than one in 10 Americans expressed their own willingness to commit political violence "to threaten or intimidate" others.

According to experts at the University of Chicago, an estimated 13 million Americans believe force would be justified to restore Trump to the White House, and an estimated 15 million Americans would support using force to prevent the former president from being prosecuted. These startling numbers again underline that our safety and security -- as well as the rule of law -- are under attack.

Having spent nearly 30 years in Congress, including as Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and, since last year, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol, I know that not every Republican embraces the MAGA extremism that is turning many to violence. But I also know that MAGA Republicans, and their leader, are drowning out the voices of reason within their party while they erode American democracy. In fact, many on the right are all too willing to exploit this extremism -- and resulting division -- for political gain.

To understand how MAGA Republicans exploit their followers and dog-whistle at violence, look no further than their reaction to the FBI's execution of a lawful search warrant for highly classified documents apparently kept illegally at the former President's beach club. According to the wide breadth of public reporting, the Department of Justice followed the law and all normal procedures after attempting to obtain the classified documents voluntarily. Although no one is above the law in this country, Trump and MAGA extremist politicians' immediate reaction was to attack the rule of law and dog-whistle at violence.

Knowing full well that MAGA extremists hang on their every word as marching orders, the former President and Republican leaders shamefully nodded toward violence after the execution of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. The former President said he does "not believe the people will stand for it" and said that if the temperature is not brought down in the country, which he has only dialed up, "terrible things are going to happen." Extremist members of Congress have called for the FBI, the principal law enforcement agency of the United States, to be defunded.

What ensued has been all too predictable. Twitter posts about "civil war" rose nearly 3,000% in a matter of hours after the search. Federal law enforcement saw an increase in threats against their officers. A week later, an armed man attempted to breach an FBI office in Ohio before engaging in an hours-long standoff with police. The incident ended when the man pointed his firearm at police and was shot and killed.

Members of Congress have also been targeted, with one Democratic Congressman reporting that a caller to his office threatened to use a firearm to assassinate him. I have also received threats. And just last week, an armed intruder steeped in right-wing conspiracy theories broke into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's home in what appeared to be an attempt to kidnap and attack our country's third-highest ranking elected official.

Echoing the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the intruder shouted, "Where is Nancy?" before bludgeoning her 82-year-old husband Paul Pelosi with a hammer, sending him to the hospital with a fractured skull. Of course, rhetoric directed at the Speaker has been violent in nature for years -- and pushed by members of Congress.

Many of us in Congress have recognized that the scourge of domestic terrorism, and the extremism that drives it, are a threat to the homeland. We've been investigating it for years. We know it when we see it, and we know ignoring it can have deadly consequences. With our democracy and the rule of law now also on the line, we resolve to combat extremism wherever it may occur -- even in the halls of Congress.