Twenty years ago, on September 11th, from my office on the 36th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, I gasped in disbelief at the smoking black hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Suddenly the other tower, the south tower, exploded in a horrific ball of fire. I was too far to hear. But the images of that terrible moment are razor-sharp to this day.
But while I think about this day a lot, I am not worried. The security loopholes that led Islamic terrorists to come to this country, live openly, take flight lessons and hijack commercial aircraft have long been closed (I think).
New threats to national security have now emerged and they have not crept into this country. You were born and raised here and live among us. I am speaking of compatriots in America whom the US government sees as a threat: heavily armed white racists and anti-government militias. You are the enemy within.
Don't take my word for it. Last fall, before the elections and before the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, then-President Donald Trump's Department of Homeland Security said the following:
"Ideologically motivated lone perpetrators and small groups represent the most likely terrorist threat to the home country, while domestic violent extremists represent the most persistent and deadly threat."
Who are these "domestic violent extremists"? The report goes deeper: "Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – especially white supremacist extremists (WSE) – will remain the most persistent and deadly threat in the homeland."
Again, this was a report by the Trump administration released before the election and before the deadly attack on the Capitol.
FBI Director Christopher Wray – handpicked for the job by Trump and carried on by President Biden – said in a testimony to Congress earlier this year, after Jan. 6:
"The domestic terrorism problem has long metastasized across the country and is not going to go away anytime soon," he said.
January 6 uprising
The January 6 attack was the worst attack on Washington since British forces set fire to the Capitol and the White House in 1814. It is thugs like those of yesteryear who built slings and scaffolding, stormed the building with plastic shackles and beat up the police who keep the security guards awake at night. It is her brothers, like the thugs who tried to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and the swastika-wielding neo-Nazis who terrorized Thomas Jefferson's Charlottesville in 2017, who are now a major threat to our national security.
To be fair, it has to be said that violence by left thugs can hardly be dismissed out of hand. It ranges from attempts to derail trains to stop the construction of oil pipelines, to attacks on police officers or their facilities. Several such incidents occurred after the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
However, data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows that three times as many incidents have been committed by right-wing elements in the past year. Analysis of this data by the Washington Post shows a clear, present, and accelerating threat.
"The increase reflects a growing threat from domestic terrorism that has not been seen in a quarter of a century," the analysis shows, "with far-right attacks and conspiracies that overshadow those on the extreme left and cause more deaths."
The CSIS database shows 73 right-wing extremist "incidents" in 2020 alone – or 1.4 per week – the highest figure since data collection began in 1994. Left-wing extremist attacks now accounted for a third as many: 25.
A broader sample of data shows that this is not a coincidence. As of 2015, "right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 conspiracies or attacks and 91 fatalities", while "attacks and conspiracies attributed to left-wing extremist views were responsible for 66 incidents with 19 deaths".
One thing behind all of this is the worrying increase in disinformation, which is easy to generate, easy to spread, and all but impossible to thwart. Another report, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees the vast 17-service US intelligence community, cites "Tales of fraud in the recent general election, the encouraging effects of the violent breach of the US Capitol ( and) Conditions in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. "
Ominously, she adds that "conspiracy theories that encourage violence will almost certainly lead some (domestic violent extremists) to try to engage in violence this year".
Here's a duller, less diplomatic way of summarizing the ODNI's report: The right continues to spread "the big lie" about the election and, despite all evidence to the contrary, still believe that Donald Trump won.
Such “stop the steal” lies were clearly behind the attack. And somehow the pandemic – which recently killed 232 times more people than on September 11th – is a joke for many. Even the former president himself, who infected Covid and urges Americans to get vaccinated – "it's a safe vaccine and it's something that works," he said – is drowned out by a continual barrage of disinformation about it.
It is no accident that the Delta variant, case numbers, hospital admissions, and deaths are far worse today in red states with lower vaccination rates.
Lies and disinformation, it can be argued, are far more deadly than what happened that day in 2001. And while we mourn the lost on September 11th – we made a promise “never to forget” – we must never forget who and what threatens us in this case.