Deconstructing The Discourse Surrounding Domestic Terrorism And White Supremacy

Lawyers' Committee
6 min readJul 10, 2019

By Kevin Vo

Over the past few years, white supremacists have increased in numbers in the United States. In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the amount of active white nationalist groups grew by nearly 50 percent last year alone, expanding from 100 chapters in 2017 to 148 in 2018. White supremacists and white nationalists bring with them a surge of hate crimes, with federal data indicating that the annual number of police-reported hate crimes increased each year from 2014 to 2017. Many acts of white supremacist violence, such as the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, have been prosecuted as hate crimes. At the same time, many acts of white supremacist violence prosecuted as hate crimes have also been labeled as “domestic terrorism” by government officials and the media. The treatment of these cases has been a source of confusion and has led some to question why the government prosecutes white supremacist violence using hate crime charges, in addition to other federal criminal statutes, but not charges of “domestic terrorism.”

To put it simply, a specific federal charge of “domestic terrorism” does not exist and nor should it. While a definition of “domestic terrorism” is codified in federal criminal law, and that definition comes with investigative authorities, there are no criminal charges attached to that definition. According to this definition, which is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5), “domestic terrorism” means activities that:

“(1) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, (2) appear to be intended to (a) intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (b) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, © to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and (3) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

President Barack Obama greets the families of James Byrd, Jr., and Matthew Shepard. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It is apparent from this definition that an act of “domestic terrorism” involves impacting a…

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