Long before the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, Janet Napolitano tried to warn America.
As the Obama administration’s homeland security secretary, she issued a 2009 report with the FBI about a surge in far-right extremism and radicalization triggered, in part, by the election of the first Black president. Among other concerns, it detailed efforts by domestic terrorist groups to recruit military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today,” the report said. Of course, conservatives quickly pounced on Napolitano for supposedly smearing this nation’s veterans, willfully ignoring her “small percentage” citation. Perhaps worried that the backlash would overwhelm Obama’s nascent presidency, Napolitano soon offered “sincere apologies for any offense.” That report quietly disappeared.
Then came Jan. 6.
According to a list compiled by NPR, nearly 20 percent of more than 140 people facing charges connected to the Capitol insurrection incited by former President Trump “have served or are currently serving in the US military.” Three of them — Jessica Marie Watkins, Donovan Ray Crowl, and Thomas E. Caldwell — allegedly recruited others, held training camps, and amassed weapons to take to Washington. Each now faces numerous federal charges, including conspiring to obstruct Congress.
This is what Napolitano feared. Yet reaction to her report didn’t only hamstring efforts to root out racists in the armed forces. It also achieved its larger goal — to overshadow the incessant threat of white supremacist violence.
Now the Department of Homeland Security has issued a new terror bulletin warning that “violent extremists” upset by the presidential transition “as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.” Domestic terrorists “may be emboldened” by the Capitol siege that killed five people, including a Capitol police officer.
It’s the first time DHS has centered, as a potential terror threat, far-right white extremism — even though it has always been this nation’s most insistent threat.
While it does not specifically mention involvement by active military or veterans, their possible radicalization remains a significant concern. In 2019, a Military Times subscriber survey found that more than 33 percent of active duty troops and 50 percent of service members of color said they had personally witnessed acts of racism and white nationalism within their ranks. This included “swastikas being drawn on service members’ cars, tattoos affiliated with white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazi-style salutes between individuals.”
Though the warning signs have been there all along, inaction on extremism in the military was a choice. The cost of that decision is proving to be impossibly high.
Certainly, more should have been done after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including children, in 1995. He, along with his co-conspirators Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, were all army veterans. More recently, Daniel Harris and Joseph Morrison, both former Marines, were among a group of men charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
None of this is to suggest that a majority of current or former military members are violent white supremacists planning to overthrow the government. Yet it’s also probable that what Napolitano called “a small percentage” in 2009 has only increased during the past four years when a racist, anti-democracy avatar occupied the White House.
For Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first Black man in that position, excising far-right extremism from the military must be a priority. A retired four-star general, he told senators that the Pentagon’s job is to “keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Even more than an issue of unit cohesion, this is an urgent matter of national security. Those who want to attack the country they once swore to protect must be rooted out. And it must be done despite the inevitable squawking of conservatives determined to undermine efforts to dismantle white supremacy.
Twelve years ago, Napolitano said, “We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.”
We still don’t have that luxury, even though America often seems to have a greater aversion to accountability than to violence. We can never say we weren’t warned, only that we didn’t listen to the potent threats from those radicalized against democracy to dishonor their service and endanger this nation.