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What Happens When Extremism Becomes Mainstream

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Just because the impeachment trial is done, it doesn't mean the story of what happened on January 6 in the nation's capital is over. This week in both House and Senate hearings, police officials who were at the Capitol that day were questioned about it.

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YOGANANDA PITTMAN: We know that the insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol weren't only interested in attacking members of Congress and officers.

CORNISH: Here's Yogananda Pittman, acting chief of the U.S. Capitol Police.

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PITTMAN: They wanted to send a symbolic message to the nation as who was in charge of that legislative process.

CORNISH: And Pittman said there are credible threats of an upcoming attack.

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PITTMAN: With a direct nexus to the State of the Union.

CORNISH: Now, the goal of these congressional hearings is in part to stop the next outbreak of homegrown extremist violence. But this is not a federal prosecution. That's the attorney general's job, otherwise known as the nation's top cop. And President Biden wants Merrick Garland for that position.

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DICK DURBIN: Judge Garland, will you please stand to be sworn?

CORNISH: Now, you've heard a lot about Garland because of the way Senate Republicans refused to take up his nomination to the Supreme Court. You might not have heard as much about why he's qualified for this job.

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MERRICK GARLAND: The cause of the explosion at the Murrah Building was a bomb that was placed inside a Ryder truck, which was parked inside of the building.

CORNISH: Now, this is the voice of Garland back in 1995, back when he was leading the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing, a bombing that killed 168 people, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism to this day. Garland's department pursued and got the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, the far-right anti-government militant behind it. This week Merrick Garland drew a direct line from that history to the present day.

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GARLAND: I supervised the prosecution of the perpetrators of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building who sought to spark a revolution that would topple the federal government. If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6.

CORNISH: Garland told the senators that battling extremist attacks are, quote, "central to the department's mission." Now, in 1995, Hannah Allam was a teenager living in Oklahoma City, not too far from the federal building.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: I was in high school. We felt it that morning in English class. That was my first experience with far-right domestic extremism, domestic terrorism - was the Murrah Building and, you know, our high school on lockdown.

CORNISH: Allam is now NPR's national security correspondent, and for the past two years, she's been focused on homegrown far-right extremism not unlike what she witnessed as a teenager in Oklahoma City.

ALLAM: With each month, it sort of became more relevant, more newsy, more topical and, you know, sort of culminating in what we saw January 6.

CORNISH: Allam was there at the Capitol on January 6, reporting from the crowd outside.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let us in.

CORNISH: She was also in Richmond two weeks later for Lobby Day. That's a yearly gun rights rally at the state Capitol Building where, Hannah says, in the past, extremist groups have gathered.

ALLAM: And they yell about armed revolution and fighting government tyranny. And the cops kind of look on and, you know, let them blow off some steam, and then everybody goes home. And they don't make arrests. And I was wondering, you know, just given the tensions and kind of public demands for accountability and the outrage after the Capitol attack, I was like, surely that's not going to happen this time.

CORNISH: Did you think that people would show up - like, an armed mob would show up similar to January 6?

ALLAM: I wasn't sure. I knew the big, more organized groups had pledged to stay home. So that's even a little scarier because it meant that only the seriously militant - the provocateurs might be the only ones showing up.

CORNISH: Who did show up?

ALLAM: Boogaloo Boys and the press.

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MIKE DUNN: We're here openly carrying in pure defiance of this unconstitutional city ordinance.

ALLAM: One of them, a well-known Boogaloo figure named Mike Dunn, got on the bullhorn and said things like this.

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DUNN: The only answer to our problems, the only answer to this governmental infringement, is armed revolt. And I'm proudly guilty of sedition.

CORNISH: And the police - what's the response?

ALLAM: Well, if there is a different playbook for dealing with extremists threatening violence after January 6, Richmond didn't get the memo. They pretty much just did what I've seen them do before, which is, you know, watch closely, sort of just let them march around. They preen for cameras.

CORNISH: Were there any consequences for holding up their weapons, taunting the police? What happened after that?

ALLAM: No, not that day. We saw them a little later enjoying burgers and beers at a restaurant downtown.

CORNISH: There was a time when the focus of media organizations, of national security entities, when it came to the idea of terrorism - that focus was on the Muslim world - right? - after 9/11. That became kind of the dominant narrative. And in recent years, this conversation has started to shift. When did you see that shift?

ALLAM: Some would argue that it hasn't really shifted enough yet. I mean, I would say it's still the primary focus of much of the national security apparatus - is the Islamist threat, the far threat, the overseas threat, the potential for groups like ISIS and al-Qaida to come to the United States and launch attacks, even though the FBI for many years now has said that the far-right threat, the violent right, is the deadliest and the most active threat. That idea of Muslims as terrorists, that they sort of had a lock on that term, on that label - that persisted and, in some circles, still persists.

CORNISH: You know, when the topic of extremism comes up in the political debate right now, you have politicians on the right who will say, look; what about antifa? What have you learned about whether or not the threat from left-wing groups - essentially, how it compares to what is starting to develop in right-wing extremism?

ALLAM: By any metric, there's just no comparison. I mean, it's a totally lopsided picture. That being said, domestic terrorism analysts are worrying that they are going to see a hardening of the left - more groups like these, you know, kind of armed antifascist groups springing up. But as of now, there's just - there's no comparison of the threat.

CORNISH: As you go forward doing this work, can you give me two questions you're going to be asking, two things that you think are worth keeping an eye on as - for people who want to follow this issue?

ALLAM: I think the mainstreaming of extremism is the - is kind of the story. And to me, I'll be looking at how the government, law enforcement and the public sorts people, sorts - you know, how do we think about this threat? Who is an extremist at a time when, you know, a sitting president was deplatformed for promoting hate, violent ideologies, conspiracy theories? That kind of says it. You know, the line between mainstream and fringe has vanished. And so how do you even determine who's an extremist, who's a violent extremist, who should be policed, who shouldn't? I mean, these are all kinds of debates that I think are going to be unfolding as law enforcement does take a harder look at some of these groups and as the public outrage by January 6 starts demanding that law enforcement take a closer look.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Thank you for speaking with me.

ALLAM: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBERT AND GRAND OX'S "TO THE BONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.