Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A Capitol Police officer stands with members of the National Guard behind a crowd-control fence surrounding Capitol Hill a day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

'Oldest Play in the Book': Critics Warn New Domestic Terror Laws Aimed at Pro-Trump Mob Would Be Used Against Legitimate Protest

"History shows that legislation going after 'domestic terrorism' will primarily be used to target Black organizers, Muslim communities, immigrant communities."

Jake Johnson

Hearing ominous echoes of the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties, progressives are warning of the serious dangers posed by the renewed push for fresh laws targeting "domestic terrorism" in the wake of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol last week by a mob of President Donald Trump's fanatical supporters.

While acknowledging the threat posed by right-wing extremists across the nation and affirming the need for forceful action in response to last week's attack, observers noted that existing federal laws are more than sufficient to hold the insurrectionists to account for invading the halls of Congress with possible intent to hold lawmakers hostage, attempting to topple the U.S. government, and potentially committing murder.

"There are already plenty of tools at the government's disposal to crack down on far-right insurrection," The Week's Ryan Cooper wrote in a column on Sunday.

"Whatever powers Biden creates today can be used by the enemies of democracy tomorrow. Our civil liberties are simply too fragile, and the risk is much too great."
—Sarah Jones, New York magazine

The problem, Cooper argued, is not a lack of laws but rather a deficiency of will from "police departments and security agencies [that] are composed largely of conservative Republicans, and not a few open fascists." Putting new laws in place would only hand law enforcement agencies additional weapons to wield against the left, Cooper wrote.

"If you just charge the existing agencies with breaking up domestic insurgent networks, at best they will shirk, delay, and drag their feet, and at worst they will completely ignore the fascists while turning any new tools against Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protesters," said Cooper. "Indeed, this is already happening—so far, the charges against the fascist mob have been trespassing or other minor crimes, rather than the felony riot charges the leftist J20 defendants faced for simply being near minor property destruction in downtown D.C. on the day of Trump's inauguration."

As the Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden "has said he plans to make a priority of passing a law against domestic terrorism, and he has been urged to create a White House post overseeing the fight against ideologically inspired violent extremists and increasing funding to combat them."

Biden made a point of identifying members of the Trump mob as "domestic terrorists" in remarks following last week's attack, which he condemned as an "all-out assault on our institutions of democracy" led by the incumbent president.

Not long after the mob stormed Capitol Hill, some commentators began calling on Congress to begin work on a specific statute targeting "domestic terrorism"; as ProPublica explained last week, "while federal statutes provide a definition of domestic terrorism, there is not a specific law outlawing it."

The call drew swift pushback from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who tweeted Saturday that "as the vice chair of the Oversight subcommittee who ran investigations into domestic terror laws, I respectfully disagree."

"Our problems on Wednesday weren't that there weren't enough laws, resources, or intelligence," said the New York Democrat. "We had them, and they were not used. It's time to find out why."

Diala Shamas, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, echoed that point, telling The Intercept Sunday that "anyone familiar with the scope of surveillance and targeting of Black political dissents, or Muslim communities, knows that law enforcement has all the tools it needs to aggressively disrupt and hold accountable those who planned and participated in the storming of the Capitol."

"Why they didn't raises serious questions, but it was not because their hands were tied," said Shamas. "We don't need new terrorism designations."

The notorious 2001 Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks with Biden's support, provides an expansive definition of "domestic terrorism" that—as the ACLU warned—was "broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations," including "Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island, and [World Trade Organization] protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front."

The fears of civil liberties advocates were realized when, as predicted, law enforcement agencies proceeded to surveil and pursue animal rights advocates and environmentalists as well as Muslim Americans.

Warning Biden against enacting additional draconian measures in response to last week's mob attack, New York magazine's Sarah Jones wrote that the "state does not lack teeth" but "has too many at its disposal already." What's really missing in the way law enforcement and prosecutors handle protest—or violent uprisings—is lack of "discretion, and all sense of proportion" when they respond, Jones argued.

"Whatever powers Biden creates today can be used by the enemies of democracy tomorrow," warned Jones. "Our civil liberties are simply too fragile, and the risk is much too great."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Incredible': Omar and Khanna Staffers Join Levin's Office in Unionizing

"It is long past time the United States Congress became a unionized workplace, and that includes my own staff," said Rep. Ilhan Omar. "I am proud of all the people on my team who have played a leading role in the staff unionization effort. Solidarity forever."

Jessica Corbett ·


Destructive Hurricanes Fuel Calls for Biden to Declare Climate Emergency

"Mother Nature is not waiting for the president or Congress to declare a climate emergency. She's showing us in real-time here in the United States—with wildfires, floods, heatwaves, hurricanes, and drought."

Jessica Corbett ·


Spain Approves 'Solidarity' Tax to Make Nation's Top 0.1% Pay a Fairer Share

The country's finance minister said that looming changes are bound to make the tax code "more progressive, efficient, fair, and also enough to guarantee social justice and economic efficiency."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Time to Take to the Streets': Working Class Hold 'Enough Is Enough' Rallies Across UK

"Does a CEO need an extra zero at the end of their salary—or should nurses, posties, and teachers be able to heat their homes?" said one supporter ahead of the #EnoughIsEnough National Day of Action.

Julia Conley ·


Ukraine Responds to Putin Annexations With Fast-Track NATO Application

Lamenting the lack of any progress toward a diplomatic settlement, one anti-war campaigner asked: "Will the world stand idly by as we careen towards nuclear apocalypse?"

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo