Pete Simi is a sociologist and associate professor at Chapman University. He is also an NCITE research theme lead on the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.
Q: How do we best understand the violence that occurred in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6?
Given the long track record and open chatter online about their plans, we should understand what happened as completely predictable, much like the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. We should not see the insurrection as either new or an aberration. When people say, “as Americans, we don’t do this,” I appreciate the sentiment, but the sentiment is wrong. As Americans, we do this, and we have a long history of doing this. Pretending otherwise does not help address the problem. Violent far-right extremism like we saw (at the Capitol) has been allowed to fester for decades as these networks built a massive infrastructure in online spaces where highly emotive propaganda is created and widely shared. And (the actions at the Capitol) represent that broad constellation of far-right extremists. January 6th’s mob included hard-core white supremacists, including well-known public figures who were live streaming; assorted individuals with the Confederate flag; individuals wearing “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts; a noose hung outside the Capitol; and a substantial presence of the anti-Semitic QAnon movement. And, of course, lots of MAGA supporters, which are now, more than ever before, tied to the most extreme strands of the far right. In fact, as we speak, the radicalization of MAGA supporters is being hailed on various neo-Nazi Telegram channels. So we have an increasingly broad-based set of fringe actors who feel completely entitled to terrorize their “opponents” and use violence at their discretion. This is an untenable situation and cannot continue.
Q: How does America heal this deep rift and prevent such action in the future?
There has to be “truth and reconciliation,” but too often we want to bypass the truth and head straight for reconciliation. That approach feels good and is appealing, but is doomed to fail. Democracy and justice cannot stand without a deep commitment to finding the truth. We also need a deep commitment to rebuilding our civic institutions and public infrastructure. The erosion of public trust in the government long predates the ascendancy of Donald Trump, but his brand of politics and autocratic leadership style has accelerated these sentiments something fierce. And while reconciliation must guide our “better angels,” so too must accountability. Those who commit insurrection should be held accountable. Those who promote insurrection should be held accountable. Anything less than accountability will embolden an already “hot” segment of the population and further erode the legitimacy of our system of government.
Q. What domestic extremist threats concern you the most and why?I think hardcore white supremacist extremists represented by paramilitary cells like the Base remain the gravest threat in terms of small cellular-style attacks. Additionally, and just as grave a threat, are individual white supremacists unaffiliated with any particular group but deeply influenced by the larger white supremacist culture, especially virtual dimensions of that culture. They remain the most potent threat in terms of the lone actor attacks that we saw too many of in 2018 and 2019. But this landscape is dynamic and evolves quickly as we saw with the Boogaloo’s emergence into the public consciousness over the past 12 months. Boogaloo adherents have clearly demonstrated their capacity for violence, including killing law enforcement officers. I would also point to the emergence of the QAnon movement as an emerging threat, especially following the November election and the potential that some adherents will see a perceived “stolen election” as grounds for violence.
Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated conditions that lead to ideological extremism?
You could describe the social and psychological conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic as a petri dish for extremism. Social isolation, information overflow marked by substantial levels of misinformation, political and economic uncertainty, and anxiety can all contribute to a person’s susceptibility to extremism. During COVID-19, high levels of these conditions cooccurred. And all of this was happening in the runup to one of the country’s most polarizing presidential elections in recent history. On top of that, important public health measures such as wearing masks and social distancing became politicized. An “anti-lockdown” movement emerged that overlapped with various existing extremist movements, especially the anti-government militia movement.
Q. What can communities do to counter violent extremism?Communities should focus on being proactive. Existing programs have been developed at the community level like the Not in Our Town movement. Many communities have human relations commissions for community members to become involved in countering violent extremism. Early prevention efforts that are either school- or community-based and focused on violence prevention are important and almost always can use additional support in terms of volunteers and donations. In terms of warning signs: The Department of Homeland Security has developed the “See Something Say Something” campaign to encourage the reporting of suspicious behavior. Schools and workplaces play a big role in being familiar with warning signs and offering early intervention that supports individuals who may be struggling with stressors or trauma. In terms of resources for families and friends, we still have a lot of work to do as a society to invest in building effective outreach efforts. Programs in place now, like Life After Hate, which I work very closely with, and Parents for Peace have resources to support those who may fear someone they know is moving toward violent extremism.
Q. What drew you to this field of study? How is it relevant today? How has white supremacy thinking changed (or not) since you entered the field?
A number of things happened in my personal life that made me aware of hate crimes and domestic terrorism at a very young age, even as young as early elementary school. But when I was going to high school outside of Portland, Oregon, the city was the location of a hate-crime murder that resulted in the death of a recent immigrant from Ethiopia, Mulugeta Seraw. He was beaten to death by three local racist skinheads who weren’t much older than I was at the time. That definitely made an impression in terms of motivating me to want to understand how three relatively young people could find themselves with so much hate in their heart that they were willing to take another person’s life simply because of the color of his skin. Since Seraw’s murder in 1988, hate crimes have remained a major problem in this country. For far too long we have ignored the problem of white supremacist extremism and hate crimes but that seems to be changing. I entered the field in 1996, a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, a moment when the severity of this problem was too clear to deny, but that didn’t last long. Despite similar white supremacist terror attacks closely following the OKC bombing, white supremacist extremism faded from attention, especially after 9/11. I hope the current focus can be sustained and that our society can really begin to reckon with the nature of this threat and where it comes from.