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Commentary: Fears of extreme violence in US haunt world as Biden debuts

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator


TOKYO — The threat of intense civil disorder hangs over the U.S., which just witnessed Joe Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s 46th president.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that armed protests are planned at all 50 state capitals and that state assemblies and governments could become targets, according to American media reports.


Countries around the world are now trying to get a handle on Biden’s foreign policy. But they might do better by first analyzing whether order can be maintained in the U.S., as foreign policy could be put on the back burner if domestic violence explodes. In other words, surging extremism in the U.S. will certainly affect the global order.


In this column in October, I mentioned the possibility of an American ‘quasi-civil war. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — the first in about 200 years — seems to support this idea.

The riot was spearheaded by right-wing extremists, reportedly including scores of white supremacists and members of far-right groups already on the FBI’s terrorist watch list.


Terror attacks and plots in the U.S. by right-wing extremist groups have been sharply increasing in recent years.


Where there were less than 20 terror attacks and plots involving right-wing groups including abortive attempts annually between 2000 and 2013, the number jumped to around 30 to 50 in the 2017-19 period. And in the first eight months of 2020 there were 40, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.


Membership in white supremacist groups sharply rose during the eight years under Barack Obama, America’s first Black president. Activities by right-wing extremists began to further increase when former President Donald Trump — who to them seemed at least sympathetic to their cause — took office in 2017.


At stake is whether terrorism will just keep simmering or erupt into a quasi-civil war.


Seth Jones, senior vice president of the CSIS and author of two reports about far-right extremists last year, denied that the U.S. is in a state of civil war. However, he warned that the threat of terrorism has risen to a new level.


“The violent far-right consists of quite different networks with different objectives,” Jones said. “Those include white supremacists, anti-government militias and conspiracy theorists. But now, some also believe that the presidential election was stolen and that the Biden administration is illegitimate. The Capitol riot on Jan. 6 highlighted this dangerous evolution.”


White supremacists, anti-government militias and others categorized as far-right extremists have historically targeted different “enemies” and have not yet formed a unified front. But they may band together to topple the Biden administration.


“How far-right groups perceive law enforcement also began to change,” Jones said. “In 2020, many far-right protesters came out in support of the police to prevent looting and vandalism. But now, many regard law enforcement as an enemy because it is protecting what they believe is an illegitimate state. This will certainly raise the possibility that some violent far-right extremists might target law enforcement agencies. Over the mid to long term, there may be more plots and attacks against government officials, police, immigrants and others. It is potentially a more dangerous situation.”


The Capitol riot exposed another matter of greater concern: the possible presence of sympathizers with far-right extremists in the police and military responsible for cracking down on extremism. In fact, former military members were in the mob that attacked the Capitol.


The military and police are conservative organizations and can tolerate far-right ideas to some extent, said a retired high-ranking U.S. military officer. Similar problems are occurring in Europe as well.


Some 74 million Americans voted for Trump in the presidential election. A public opinion poll found more than half still refuse to accept the election result. Needless to say, most of these people oppose violence and peacefully express political views. But some Trump supporters are seemingly influenced by far-right groups and could resort to more radical deeds.


Trump supporters include followers of the QAnon far-right conspiracy group that regards the former president as a messianic warrior.


To overcome this danger, the U.S. first needs to deal with its massively widened wealth gap while trying to heal social rifts. But this is a tall order, as ultra-rightism has roots in the American Revolution.


“During the U.S. independence war, citizens fought against the ruling British army as militias,” said Hirotsugu Aida, a visiting professor at Kansai University and an expert on American conservatism. “The ideology of the militia has survived in the form of protecting the autonomy of states and resisting federal intervention. Anti-government extremists originated from them and have a long history.”


The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group, was founded in the 1860s by whites in the southern U.S. who opposed the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War.


Far-right movements in the U.S. can also impact public order in Europe, due to increasing connections with similar organizations in Europe and Russia, Ukraine. There are also ideological links between American and European right-wing organizations.


“If terror attacks by right-wing extremists occur in the U.S., far-right groups in Europe and Australia may be prompted to mimic them,” said Daiju Wada, a lecturer at Japan’s Seiwa University and expert on international terrorism.


The Azov Battalion, a far-right group in Ukraine, has accepted members from extremist groups in the U.S. and Britain, and cooperated in military training, Wada said. There also are American far-right groups that operate in Russia to recruit members.


“If violent far-right extremism in the U.S. intensifies, there is a concern that the U.S. will become an epicenter of far-right extremism,” Jones of the CSIS said.


While in office, Obama said the U.S. was no longer “the world’s policeman.” Under the current circumstances, there is a risk that the U.S. could become a catalyst that will prod extremists around the world into action.

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