Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the temptation of an easy, emotional share on social media. But sometimes, we must challenge ourselves to dig deeper than just our first reaction and push to uncover the consequences of our immediate wishes.
Such is the case with a Change.org petition calling for the federal government to designate the KKK a ‘Domestic Terror Group’. You can find it here.
It may seem commonsense that we demand this. But please don’t sign it. Really.
“WHY?! DO YOU WANT TO ALLOW THE KKK TO KILL AMERICANS?”
No, I don’t, but let’s pump the breaks and look at how we got here, and what it would mean if this petition accomplished what it set out to.
Knee-Jerk Activism Often Misses The Mark
The petition shows that it was started one week ago. This coincides, roughly, with Trump starting to push the narrative that Antifa is responsible for much of the unrest we are seeing in this country. Trump tweeted that he would be designating Antifa a terrorist organization last Saturday.
Soon after, the Change.com petition on the KKK popped up as a countermeasure.
And that’s pretty understandable: Antifa is responsible for zero deaths, ever. Right-wing terrorism is more common in the United States than even Islamic terrorism, and, if not for 2 outlier events of Pulse and 9/11, would have a higher body count.
There’s only one problem:
There’s No Such Thing As A Domestic Terrorist Group
There is nothing in the mechanism of the United States justice system that allows the government to designate a domestic group a terrorist organization. Terrorist charges can be brought against an individual, but a group cannot fall under the same surveillance umbrella that we track foreign terror groups with. Why?
Because it would be unconstitutional.
A terrorist organization designation has a complex set of consequences that I’m only partly familiar with. There are controls on how money can be tracked, moved, and seized. There are lower thresholds for initiating surveillance without a warrant. And suspected individuals from these organizations can be detained, oftentimes indefinitely. (You’ve heard of Guantanamo Bay.)
All of these things would surely be an infringement of the 4th amendment, a violation of due process rights. The thinking is that these actions against noncitizens are justified to keep American lives safe. But the dynamic of that changes pretty quickly when you have to infringe upon the rights of Americans as part of your defense.
For that reason, there’s no mechanism for the United States government to label a group a terrorist organization because doing so would almost certainly result in constitutional violations of its members. And that’s a good thing, because…
We Don’t Want The Government Picking and Choosing Who Is A Terrorist
Remember this all started because Trump threatened to designate Antifa — a domestic collection of people with a similar, specific idea — a terrorist group. We correctly saw that as wrong, as a step infringing upon free speech, and likely due process. That was abundantly clear because Antifa is responsible for zero deaths. Ever.
If we opened the door for the KKK to be labeled a terrorist organization, what guarantee would we have that a later administration (or this administration at a later date) would not designate anyone they deemed a threat to their power a terrorist organization?
A law like this would be an authoritarian’s dream. And when dealing with an administration that often flirts openly with authoritarianism and fascism, perhaps giving them more teeth to bite back at dissent isn’t the optimal play.
It Comes Down To Free Speech
The difference, some will say, is that the KKK has carried out violent acts, and Antifa has not. And while that’s true, that white nationalism has killed thousands of Americans spanning several centuries, we should only criminalize violence and speech inciting violence.
All speech, no matter how unpleasant, should be legal. Even if it’s calling for an ethnostate that would surely use violence should it be able?
Referring to the world’s great living intellectual, Noam Chomsky sums it up perfectly:
“Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”
The desire for a pure ethnostate is not inherently violent. It’s possible that all parties would willingly resegregate, or that the group wishing to have an ethnostate would remove themselves to their own territories, per their desires. Because it is not inherently violent, it becomes a really unpleasant ideology.
How the KKK Wins by Walking The Line
It’s worth noticing that the KKK has remained a prominent organization, despite their fringe positions, by becoming incredibly good at walking the line to the limits of protected speech. Thankfully, most alt-right groups have not yet mastered this restraint.
A common pattern appears with fringe groups, particularly white nationalist and fascist groups in the United States. They recruit new followers, and to keep them engaged, radicalize them and their views. This continues until the group reaches a critical mass of sorts, and is chomping at the bit for more than just rhetoric. At some point, the bubble bursts, and an act of violence is carried out by one of their members. (The most recent major example of this would be the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.)
But violence hurts their cause because it triggers a new chain of events: organizers are put under extreme legal and social scrutiny for inciting violence; the bad press scares away some members, and discourages recruits; the organization often fractures and dissolves.
This is why a few years later, you’ll see the same white supremacist leaders reemerge with a new group, new branding new fancy suits and haircuts, but the same rhetoric. (Maybe if we look like academics, our shitty ideas will be better received!)
The KKK has been extremely good at avoiding this by remaining peaceful. When they hold rallies, it’s always done with permits (and usually police protection). They don’t condone or tolerate violent acts, as it would hurt their ability to grow their numbers. By remaining just outside the legal reach of the law, they continue to grow. With growth comes power and influence, which means, left unchecked, they could pose a threat in some elections.
Which Is Where Antifa Comes In
It is this unpleasant truth that inspires the ideology of Antifa. They see, correctly, that a free country with free speech provides fertile soil for white nationalism and fascism. It’s an ugly reality that free speech means you have to extend free speech to those that hope, one day, to end free speech for those they deem “undesirable”. How, then, to stop a repeat of what we saw in post-WWI Germany?
Antifa is the idea — not a group — that we should allow free speech, and take dangerous ideologies into our own hands as a united citizenry. Much of what Antifa does is online — doxing white supremacists to the employers and communities for example. But they aim to disrupt fascism any way they can, including through the use of violence.
In short, they become the consequences of really unpleasant free speech so the government isn’t given the power to censor specific groups.
Which makes it all the more interesting that, in response to the government trying to exercise a gross abuse of power in designating Antifa a terrorist group, some have responded with demanding much the same thing — that the government gets to pick and choose who is and who is not a terrorist, purely by affiliation.
Don’t sign the petition. Big Brother is not the solution to our KKK problem. In fact, it could well be just the mechanism the KKK, white nationalist, and fascists have been waiting for.