Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
The murder of Lori Kaye, a 60-year-old woman attending synagogue on Saturday, was the work of a domestic terrorist who killed her because she was Jewish. The shooter also wounded three others at the synagogue, who were celebrating the last day of Passover.
Terrorism is generally defined as an act of violence against civilians for political purposes by an individual or group. Saturday’s assault at the San Diego-area synagogue by suspect John Earnest certainly fits that definition.
If this attack seems sickeningly familiar to many Americans, that’s because it is.
Like school shooters, terrorists learn from and emulate other terrorists. According to what is believed to be the shooter’s online manifesto, similar hate-filled terrorist attacks inspired his heinous act – including the October shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which a man, armed with an assault rifle, killed 11 worshippers. The shooter in that attack blamed Jews for the migrant caravan that was then moving through Mexico, according to his postings on social media.
In this manifesto, the shooter also references the man who killed 50 worshipers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.
According to local authorities, the California shooter was a “lone actor” terrorist who operated without the support of any group. He was also allegedly armed with an “AR-type assault weapon,” which is designed to kill human beings at a rapid pace and is often the weapon of choice for mass murderers in the United States.
Jihadist terrorists, using semi-automatic rifles, have also carried out massacres in the United States in recent years. In 2016, armed with an assault rifle, Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. He was inspired by ISIS – but had no direction or training from the terrorist organization.
A year earlier, armed with assault rifles, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 at an office in San Bernardino, California. They, too, were inspired by ISIS, but had no direct connections to the group.
What to do?
There are three kinds of issues that need to be addressed to respond to these cases of domestic terrorism.
The easy availability of assault rifles in the United States helps enable those intent on mass murder, yet the Second Amendment absolutism of the National Rifle Association (NRA) has prevented common sense measures to curtail the sale of such weapons, which are designed to kill as many human beings as possible.
Such measures do not amount to “taking” peoples’ guns away. My in-laws in Louisiana do not go deer hunting with assault rifles.
However, the mood in the United States seems to be shifting – with the increasing frequency of mass murders enabled by semiautomatic weapons, contributions to the NRA are “lagging,” according to the New York Times. And, according to Gallup polling released in October, six in ten Americans now support stricter gun laws.
Last month, the New Zealand government banned the sale of assault rifles shortly after the massacre at the mosque. Could the US Congress ever enact such a sensible measure? The question, of course, is unfortunately almost entirely rhetorical, as long as politicians remain obedient to the NRA.
Another issue to address is the legal status of domestic terrorism, which is not a federal crime, according to Mary McCord, who ran the National Security Division at the Department of Justice until 2017, where she oversaw all terrorism investigations in the United States. The time has come to consider how such a statute might work.
Of course, there are First Amendment issues that make this complicated, but the case of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson of Silver Spring, Maryland, underlines why such a statute could be useful. Hasson was arrested in February. Prosecutors said he had a hit list of Democratic politicians and anchors at CNN and MSNBC – and that he had assembled 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Yet a federal judge said Thursday that Hasson will be released, while he is awaiting trial on weapons and drugs charges to which he has pleaded not guilty.
If Hasson had been an ISIS sympathizer, it likely would have been much easier to keep him in detention because any form of “material support” to ISIS, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization is a federal crime that allows prosecutors to keep suspects in jail while they await trial.
In addition, President Donald Trump needs to be clear about calling out extremism of all kinds. To his credit, at a rally on Saturday in Wisconsin, Trump said, “We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate. It must be defeated.”
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Trump, however, should stop defending his remarks about the “fine people” on both sides of the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, as he did on Friday. At the Charlottesville rally, hoards of neo-Nazis marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” This is the same anti-Semitism that inspired the California shooter to carry out his attack at the synagogue on Saturday, as outlined in the manifesto.