If the United States’ failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of imagination, missing the terrorist attack of Jan. 6, 2021, was a failure of perception — a persistent refusal at the highest levels of our government to acknowledge the empirical reality of the threat posed by right-wing terrorists.
Terrorism in the United States is overwhelmingly domestic and motivated by far-right ideologies, often racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. In the past decade — indeed, in just about every year since 1990, other than 2001 — acts of right-wing domestic terrorism have been far more numerous and more lethal than acts of terrorism inspired or influenced by groups or movements overseas, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a research center at the University of Maryland. Far-right plots are also less likely to be disrupted by law enforcement; in the past decade about two-thirds of right-wing domestic terrorist plans have ended in “success,” according to the center, compared with 22 percent of terrorist plans hatched by international and affiliated actors.
So one of the most striking passages in President Biden’s Inaugural Address on Wednesday was also one of the most straightforward: He named the enemy. “Political extremism, white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism,” he said, are dangers “that we must confront and we will defeat.”
It was a quick line delivered without much flourish, and it may sound overgenerous to congratulate Biden simply for speaking plainly. Yet it is a sign of how reluctant American officials have been to take on right-wing violence that his line made history. He may be the first president to directly address white supremacy — a stain on the United States since before its founding — in an Inaugural Address.
Incantation alone cannot solve any problem, of course. But in the fight against far-right attacks, a president’s naming the menace might at least push the nation out of the ditch of inaction we’ve been stuck in for decades.
The primary reason that right-wing political violence persists in the United States is that it has rarely been prioritized by law enforcement, and the primary reason it has rarely been prioritized is political reluctance to do so. In the past decade, the lethal attacks kept coming — at a Black church in Charleston, S.C.; at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; at a Walmart in El Paso; at a protest against a racist rally in Charlottesville, Va., — but under Donald Trump and even under Barack Obama, security officials continued to shower resources on addressing foreign threats rather than those closer to home.
The government’s lapse has now become obvious. In the months leading up to the Capitol riot, right-wing assailants hardly attempted to hide their intentions. Many promised in public that they were planning to attack the government. They photographed themselves preparing to attack the government. They posted the routes they planned to take on their way to attack the government. Some even practiced attacking the federal government by attacking state governments. Undoing their plot was not a matter of finding a needle in a haystack; this was more like searching for a porcupine in a haystack, unmissable by anyone who cared to take minimal notice.
And yet the counterterrorism community still missed this huge attack — just as experts had long predicted would happen.