Two Republican senators are diving into the fight against the threat of domestic terrorism — by introducing legislation targeting the decentralized antifascist movement known as “antifa.”
Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana unveiled a resolution this week “calling for the designation of Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.” The resolution states that “Antifa is a movement that intentionally combines violence with the group’s alt-left positions.”
There are two problems with this: First: antifa hasn’t killed people, unlike the far-right. Second, there’s no domestic terror designation system that would make this possible. Organizations like the KKK or the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen are instead described as “hate groups.”
Antifa isn’t killing people. But the far-right is.
The FBI has said that domestic terrorism poses a growing and very real threat to national security. However, that threat isn’t coming from antifa, whose members sometimes damage property and brawl with fascists or police but haven’t been linked to any killings in the U.S.
There is a threat, though, from far-right extremists whose members accounted for 73% of extremist murders in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League. This is compared to 23% by jihadists.
At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan described white supremacist violence as a “huge issue” and an “evolving and increasingly concerning threat.”
Cruz and Cassidy were spurred into action by a recent incident in Portland, Oregon, involving right-wing blogger Andy Ngo. Ngo was beaten up by antifa during a Proud Boy rally in late June, and said he suffered a brain hemorrhage as a result.
He soon appeared on every conservative news outlet telling his story, and became a martyr in the rage against antifa. President Donald Trump even referenced the incident at his rally in North Carolina earlier this week.
The Republican senators also point to a series of incidents involving ICE officers and antifa. For example, the ICE office in southwest Portland, was shut down “for days” due to “threats and occupation by Antifa members,” according to the resolution.
They also noted that the Portland’s Rose City Antifa chapter “explicitly rejects the authority of law enforcement officers” and are opposed to the “civil treatment” of members of far-right groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer by police.
Portland law enforcement’s “civil treatment” of far-right groups was brought to light earlier this year. A local paper published hundreds of text messages between a police lieutenant and the leader of Patriot Prayer.
The last item on the resolution calls on the federal government to “redouble its efforts” to combat the spread of “all forms of domestic terorrism, including white supremacist terrorism.”
There is no domestic terrorism designation system
It is not currently possible to designate antifa as a domestic terror group, because there is no explicit domestic terror statute.
The terror group designation system is currently overseen by the State Department. One of the main criteria for the terrorist designation is that the group operates primarily oversees.
The fact that the U.S. does not have a domestic terror law was spotlighted in a series of recent hearings on Capitol Hill, which were convened to talk about the growing threat posed by the far-right. Intelligence officials were asked why, for example, the Pulse Nightclub shooter, who pledged allegiance to ISIS, a foreign terror group, was charged with terrorism, when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who left 11 dead, was only charged with hate crimes.
However, legal experts have warned that adjusting the law to allow for domestic terror designations could open up the potential for the system to be abused to target protest groups — like antifa, or even Black Lives Matter.
The senators missed a glaring PR opportunity
Although there is no explicit domestic terror statute, the 2001 Patriot Act created a definition of domestic terror that the FBI uses to open investigations. Under the Patriot Act, domestic terror is defined as “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” that are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion” or “to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
The examples that Cruz and Cassidy give in their resolution don’t quite fit the bill. It would be hard to argue that occupying an ICE office was violent and endangered human life. Similarly, the incident in Portland between Ngo and some antifa-affiliated activists would also be difficult to frame as terrorism.
In fact, the only recent incident that could possibly fit the description wasn’t even included in the legislation. Last weekend, a 69-year-old armed man was shot dead by police after he threw incendiary devices at an ICE facility in Tacoma, Washington. The man, who was described by friends as an anarchist and anti-fascist, had already been in trouble with the law for lunging at an officer who was trying to arrest a protester in 2017.
The incident provoked an uproar on the right, who said that it was further proof that antifa pose a domestic terror threat.
However, it also puts the Dems in a tight spot.
Some Republican support on this bill is a gimme. Since its black-clad activists burst onto the protest scene during the 2016 election cycle, antifa has been a favorite boogeyman of the GOP.
The legislation does succeed in one thing: It forces Democrats to draw a line in the sand. Conservative media has been hammering Democrats about forcefully “condemning” antifa, often borrowing language used by mainstream media about Trump’s failure to forcefully condemn the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in Aug. 2017.
However, Democrats run the risk of alienating their constituents if they condemn antifa with the same language they use to condemn the far-right.
“The Squad” — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — have been criticized by conservative media for not speaking out strongly about the Tacoma incident. A blogger with Rebel Media, a far-right Canadian media outlet, asked Omar if she condemned the Tacoma incident earlier this week. Omar ignored his question.
As of Thursday, a truck was driving around DC displaying rolling images of “The Squad” on screens, plus a link to a petition, which was organized by Rebel Media: “Democrats who REFUSED to condemn ICE facility attack MUST denounce Antifa violence!”
Cover: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Policy Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel June 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)