BU’s Jessica Stern on Why January 6 Attack on Capitol Was an Act of Terrorism
BU’s Jessica Stern on Why January 6 Attack on Capitol Was an Act of Terrorism
Expert on far-right violence and white supremacists talks about the reasons she saw this coming
Jessica Stern has spent more than two decades studying and writing about white supremacists and other extremists who call for armed conflict. But even she was shocked by the violence that exploded at the Capitol on January 6—and by the talk she saw online about what might come next.
A research professor at BU’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Stern’s main focus is on the perpetrators of violence and their motivations. She has interviewed white-identity terrorists in the United States, jihadis in Pakistan, neo-Nazis in European prisons—and more recently, a former Serbian warlord convicted of genocide for atrocities committed against Muslims during the Bosnian War.
A member of the Homeland Security Experts Group, an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to increase awareness of evolving national security risks, Stern studies counterterrorism and the migration of hard-right extremists to online platforms. She is currently teaching courses on the psychology and history of terrorism and on mapping dangerous speech online.
“I spent a lot of time on Parler before it was taken down on Sunday night,” Stern says. “What shocked me the most about what was happening on the site was the open planning for additional violence on January 17 at State Houses around the country and on January 19 and 20 in Washington, D.C.”
“How can we stop this kind of dangerous speech, while still protecting people’s rights?” Stern asks. “This is the question that haunts me and my colleagues who study the migration of extremist recruitment to online platforms.”
BU Today spoke with Stern about whether last week’s attack on the Capitol was an act of terrorism, what motivated those behind the attack, and what she feels can be done to prevent further violence.
With Jessica Stern
BU Today: Who are the people who were involved in the Capitol riot?
Jessica Stern: Authorities are investigating the involvement of a wide variety of hard-right movements, including hard-right militia groups such as the 3 Percenters, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, Q-Anon conspiracy believers, Proud Boys, and anti-Communist activists. They are also looking into the involvement of retired military personnel, elected state and local officials, and even some of the Capitol Police. Several Capitol police officers have been suspended. There were reportedly also COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers involved.
Their ideologies are quite diverse, but what unites them is their continuing support for President Trump and their belief that the election results were fraudulent. They were heeding Trump’s call to come to DC for the “Save America March,” which he promised “will be wild.” He told supporters, “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Does the Capitol attack meet your definition of terrorism?
Yes. Terrorism involves a violent act, or threat of violence, aimed at attaining a political, economic, social, or religious goal, with the objective of conveying a message to a larger audience beyond the immediate victims. As is common with terrorism, these individuals were communicating with several audiences: existing supporters, the members of Congress they hoped to force not to certify the Electoral College votes, and the American people, whom they hope to either terrify or persuade to join their cause.
What went through your mind last Wednesday as you followed the news of the siege?
I was shocked to see violent American extremists breaking into the Capitol and threatening members of Congress. When the news of the Capitol attack broke, I was meeting with a group of students who have been reading over online posts from some of these groups. A colleague from another university, who also studies online and real-world violence, was with us. He refused to believe that the mob that descended on the Capitol would become violent. I insisted they would, but the way they became violent—and the specific persons they were hunting, including Vice President Pence—still shocks me. I am even more horrified to see the continuing open incitement of violence, planned for the 16th to 20th of January, online.
What do you think is motivating these people?
I haven’t had the opportunity to interview any of the people involved in the insurrection, but it is common for terrorists to have a mix of motivations. Often there is a personal sense of grievance or humiliation. Some people who feel deeply humiliated—personally or politically—seem to be drawn to grievance cultures or ideologies that identify an enemy responsible for their humiliation. For white supremacists, the enemy includes people of color, Jews, and the liberals who allegedly promote them. Q-Anon conspiracy theorists believe that the Democratic elite is running pedophile rings and harvesting the blood of children. Fighting the spread of these pedophile rings, or “stopping the steal,” gives people who feel humiliated by lost status or power a sense of purpose or significance.
I’ve seen this in many of the people I’ve interviewed over the years. An example is Kerry Noble, a former leader of a paramilitary fundamentalist Christian group, who told me that he was sickly as a child and was forced to take the girls’ gym class in school. The first time he felt strong, he said, was when he was living on an armed compound with his group, which was determined to rid America of Blacks, Jews, and gay people.
Some white people are very threatened by the increasing diversity of our country. Beginning in 2013, more nonwhite babies were born than white, and by 2044, America will be a majority-minority country. White supremacists saw President Trump as a bulwark against the “great replacement” of whites by nonwhites and as the “great cleanser.”
A study by Diana C. Mutz [a University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and communications], published in 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences, found that perceived status threat among high-status groups, whom she identifies as whites, Christians, and men, was the most important motivation underlying support for Trump. She identifies the declining numerical dominance of white Americans, the perceived rising political and economic status of African Americans, and insecurity about whether the United States still dominates the global economy as the specific anxieties plaguing Trump-supporting whites, Christians, and men.
Trump has made it clear many times, in many ways, that he endorses these hard right groups and encourages their violence. Before their attempted coup, he told them, “You’re stronger, you’re smarter….You’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
The refusal by many Republicans to strongly condemn the president’s actions will make the Biden administration’s efforts to round up terrorists seem like a partisan witch hunt, which is likely to further radicalize the extremists and people involved in the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement.
What about the role of social media?
I am working together with my colleague Gianluca Stringhini [a College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering] on a study of extremist incels, a mostly online misogynist group that sometimes gets involved in real-world violence. He has shown that when people are kicked off of mainstream platforms such as Twitter, they often migrate to more extreme platforms that function as echo chambers. These platforms, which include Parler, Gab, and many others, create a grievance culture that seems to become addictive, a finding supported by neuroscience. These platforms can also serve as confirmation bias machines.
Did you and others who study these hard right groups see this coming?
Yes. Many terrorism researchers have been watching and warning about the growth of various groups on the hard right—white supremacists and anti-government militias—for more than a decade. The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly issued warnings, and there have been multiple congressional hearings. Darryl Johnson, [then] a Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst, warned about the growth of “right-wing extremism” in 2009. His report was ultimately rescinded because of political backlash by Republican lawmakers against his use of the term “right-wing.”
You spent a couple of years studying the wartime leader of Bosnia’s Serbs. Were you trying to sound a warning about the possibility of violent conflict in the United States? Does anything about the current situation in this country remind you of what happened in Bosnia?
Yes, there are some similarities. First, both leaders—Radovan Karadžić and Donald Trump—are what I would call malignant nationalists. Second, both leaders capitalized on fear of demographic shifts to strengthen their own hold on power. There are also important differences: Karadzic organized a genocide. Just before the war in Bosnia, the demographically dominant Serbs were faced with the prospect of becoming outnumbered by Muslims. Karadžić deliberately exacerbated their fear to foment violence. But Trump’s talk of “invasion” and “infestation” by nonwhites, and the way his rhetoric and ideas were picked up by domestic terrorists, reminds me of what happened in Bosnia at the beginning of the war.
What do you think can be done to prevent further violence?
Because there are so many members of Congress offering tacit—and in some cases, overt—support for these white supremacist terrorists and their insurrection in Congress and elsewhere, it’s going to be very difficult to roll this back. Many people have lost trust in traditional sources of news and get their information from social-media sites, which have figured out that they can make more money by confirming people’s biases and maximizing viewers’ emotional arousal. White supremacists’ rage at the increasing diversity of our country has been growing for years, but the government and social media platforms are only just beginning to pay attention.
The refusal by many Republicans to strongly condemn the president’s actions will make the Biden administration’s efforts to round up terrorists seem like a partisan witch hunt, which is likely to further radicalize the extremists and people involved in the “Stop the Steal” movement. And many of these terrorists are connected with similar hard-right groups abroad, further complicating law-enforcement efforts to shut them down. Perhaps most troubling of all is that white-identity terrorist groups have been deliberately recruiting law-enforcement and military personnel for years.
There is also a problem with the definition of criminal incitement in my view. There is a shocking amount of what most of us would call incitement to murder and terrorism on some of these sites, which in many countries would be illegal. But much of this incitement is protected under the First Amendment because the threat isn’t imminent. One question that arises: Do we need to redefine criminal incitement for how it might work online?
On Parler, millions of enraged people were listening and watching. People with grievances can find each other and organize on the internet. I imagine that it’s just a matter of time before Russia takes over hosting Parler, as happened with 8chan/8kun. Based on its previous activities, it seems likely that Russia, and possibly other nations, is active on these sites, helping disseminate extremist views in the hope of fomenting further violent conflict.
This is a really tough, interdisciplinary problem. Social media has become a weapon, even as it’s also used for much that is good and productive. How to preserve what is prosocial, while also limiting what is antisocial? Our students will presumably be spending a lot of time trying to figure this out. This is the world they’re inheriting.
I agree the public have lost faith on the traditional news outlet because of the myriad cable channels that called themselves news station. In reality they are opinion shows that smear the definition of what constitute is news.
News is defined by the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why). These so called opinion news programs should NOT allow to be able to called themselves or associated with the word “News”.
By having a clear definition and label that these programs are not NEWS, then perhaps viewers will not get confuse with what is fact and what is their respective opinion comments.
There’s only News, good or bad. But no such think as “fake” news.
Professor Stern defines terrorists as those who commit a “violent act, or threat of violence, aimed at attaining a political, economic, social, or religious goal, with the objective of conveying a message to a larger audience beyond the immediate victims”. This equally defines Antifa and BLM (vandalizing police cars/stations/federal courthouses/historical statutes to tear down a “racist system”) and “far-right” groups (breaking into capital buildings to “stop the steal”). Were there navel-gazing Q&A articles in BU Today labeling as terrorists the groups who burned police precincts and police cars, attacked federal buildings and looted businesses over the summer? If so, I must have missed them. Perhaps it didn’t fit the preferred narrative about the danger posed by “angry Christian white men” that is so popular among the intellectual set these days. Truth is, anger and violence in our society is building steadily on both sides. Perhaps leaders like Prof. Stern should spend less time trying to throw fuel on the fire by labeling, stereotyping and blaming based on race, gender and religion and more time trying heal the divisions and relieve the pressure that seems to be building steadily toward an explosion. A wise person once said, “seeking an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind”.
Actually, @Glass Houses, the biggest difference between the terrorists that attacked the Capitol and the Black Lives Matter protestors, is that Black Lives Matter organizers didn’t take credit or responsibility for rioting and looting that occurred this summer. Many even condemned and discouraged it, unlike those (proud boys, qanon and other white hate groups) organizers of the attack at the Capitol, who boldly came out and accepted responsibility and continue to encourage more attacks. And lets not forget the former president, trump, who continues to speak of these terrorists as good people whom he loves, but still refuses to admit defeat and condemn this attack as wrong. Its not a bias or throwing fuel on the fire, its really just pointing out the truth of the situation. How can you heal without treating and acknowledging that there’s an issue? A patient has to recognize they have a problem, the doctor identifies the problem, then treats the problem before the patient can be healed. If this never happens the only thing the patient does is put a band-aid on an open wound. It becomes infected, festers, gets worse and sometimes results in an infection that leaves the patient with a worse problem than before. If people like Prof. Stern don’t point out the issue we cant treat it and heal. Sorry you can’t skip that step.
This fascinating opinion piece mentions whites 24 times, blacks once, and jews twice. It is statistically skewed and unbalanced. The references to Serbs are taken out of historical context and flows with the current narration. How about a striving for balance in coverage, BU Today? How about some civil honesty and insightful commentary on leftist terror and cancel culture? What about journalistic courage and honest description of destruction of public buildings and monuments by antifa and other criminal elements? Enough of constant Trump and right-bashing! Stand up and provide unbiased coverage for a change.
Trump did say “fight like hell,” as quoted in the article above. Before that he had said, only 18 min in: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” And after “we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give…our Republicans, the weak ones, … the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” (heavily edited for blather)
The crowd also chanted Fight For Trump. Search ‘Fight’ in the transcript it’s in there 23 times.
But politicians exhort us to ‘Fight’ all the time.
I’m going to pick the low-hanging fruit and quote AOC:
Sept 19, 2020
“to fight for our future, and to fight for our democracy, and to fight for something more just”
“Because this election has always been about the fight of and for our lives.”
Same day, twitter: “I want to make one thing clear: we can, and must, fight”
Sept 20, 2020
“We need to make sure that we realize and fight this fight with the weight of every person who sacrificed for voting rights, every person who sacrificed their wellbeing and their lives”
Many thanks to Professor Stern for her enlightening comments on the forces behind the storming of the U.S. Capitol by (yes, overwhelmingly white) insurrectionists. Perhaps the failure to pay attention to our own homegrown terrorists is caused by the fact that doing so is less profitable than paying attention to the foreign variety (i.e., as defined by the US government). Distinguished journalist James Risen has done an excellent analysis of what he calls the “homeland security industrial complex” in his book entitled “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War” (2014). The so-called “war on terror” has been highly profitable for a range of U.S. businesses and private individuals. Perhaps the “homeland security industrial complex” can now think up ways of generating profit by concentrating its attention on our homegrown terrorists, who are actually a much greater threat to our “homeland security” than the foreign ones.
I think this piece does a good job of illustrating the complexity of these issues, their deep history, and the challenges of dealing with them. I appreciate the work Professor Stern et al. are undertaking, and I hope that research like hers will help us find constructive answers to the problems posed to all societies by hate groups like those who participated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6.
I also take note that in the comments below there appear some of the distressing tendencies towards
“whataboutism” and the use of non-equivalent (or superficially equivalent) examples in an effort to suggest bias and impute a lack of legitimacy to this reporting. Perhaps we here at BU need to do a better job of instructing ourselves on the toxicity of these tactics, which are easy, misleading, and destructive to rigorous thought and analysis.
For starters, there are qualitative and quantitative differences that can be discussed when evaluating the violence perpetrated by groups on both Left and Right. Both sides include radical elements, but the violence instigated by Right-wing radicals is demonstrably greater, more deliberate, and more targeted than activity on the Left. It is also, as Professor Stern and others point out, widely discussed and actively fomented in plain view over social media platforms that effectively reward such content by pushing it out to more users in order to build revenue streams with no regard for the potential cost to society.
Furthermore, some of the comments below offer a false equivalency between violence that arises out of social justice protests and the deliberately violent and seditious “protests” of the radical Right. The violence witnessed at many social justice protests over the summer frequently developed as a result of aggressive tactics on the part of police – the same police who typically stood back when heavily-armed White “protestors” showed up in Michigan, Kenosha Wisconsin, and elsewhere, whether to demonstrate against wearing masks or as self-appointed “defenders” of property (that frequently didn’t belong to them or anyone they knew) from BLM protestors. In addition, violence wasn’t the point of the BLM protests, while for radical Right groups, influencing policy through violence or the threat of violence is the whole point; thus the legitimacy of referring to them as terrorists. There simply isn’t an equivalence between the two, and a strong argument can be made that part of the reason for police inaction against the radical Right is the fact that they tend to come heavily armed and may even bring more firepower and better armor than the law enforcement personnel on the scene. One dangerous potential lesson here is that if BLM protestors started showing up with the same kind of arms and armor as the radical Right, police might show greater restraint with them too. After all, we know from the reported testimony of at least one Capitol police officer that the reason he never drew his service weapon on January 6 was the simple calculation that he and his fellow officers would be heavily outgunned and the result would be a slaughter. On the other hand, there were insurrectionists on January 6 who actively advocated for executing another officer with his own weapon.
In any case, as this interview with Professor Stern points out, there are many factors involved in what’s happening, and we face complex and daunting challenges in our quest for effective responses that also respect the rights that most of us hold dear. Regrettably, holding honest discussions about these issues in our triggered age also presents real challenges.
It’s puzzling how people get away with talking about extreme right wing violence that took place over the course of several hours in one day – admittedly abhorrent but widely condemned violence – and not mention a word about MONTHS of often deadly riots by left wing extremists just a few months ago.
Was the summer violence a figment of people’s collective imagination? It is surreal to hear this much hysteria about the Capitol riots from the same people who excused a hundred times this amount of violence just a few months ago. How is it that the incredible amount of property damage (in the billions) and over 30 lives lost NOT widely reported while we hear uninterrupted breathless coverage of ONE day of similar violence from politically incorrect extremists. Where were Jessica Stern, mainstream news media and liberal politicians during the summer months of almost daily political violence? People (and there were many) who excused, apologized or were silent about the violence lack any credibility. Where were liberal calls to use the National Guard to protect life and property of average citizens? Are the only one deserving of National Guard protection political elites in Washington DC?
I would listen to Jessica Stern now if I had heard her talking about the horror perpetrated on city after city in the summer months. Please look up this well-hidden report by the left leaning news outlet Axios back in September:
Rather than harping endlessly about white supremacists, why not show some intellectual integrity and talk instead about American extremists in general. They both cause serious damage to American democratic values. It would indeed be a unifying message to point out that white supremacists share some important characteristics with BLM and Antifa.
Until we get past the absurd hypocrisy that political violence is only un-American when right wing extremists use it, we will have this mess of a country we have now.