From El Paso to the War on Terror, the Dangers of Historical Amnesia

The forces of violent displacement and division are again at work in the borderlands — and in the White House.

A woman leans over to write a message on a cross at a makeshift memorial at the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A woman leans over to write a message on a cross at a memorial on Aug. 6, 2019, at the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas. Photo: John Locher/AP

When Monica Muñoz Martínez thinks about El Paso, Texas, she also thinks about Ciudad Juárez. It’s the same process that happens when she thinks about Brownsville and Matamoros, or Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. They are clusters of human civilization that spill into one another, sharing space across a border drawn not that long ago, which has come to mean a lot in recent years. A historian, professor, and a native Texan, Muñoz Martínez knows the story well. She is the co-founder of Refusing to Forget, a collective project aimed at educating the public on a largely lost but critically important facet of U.S. history: the systematic lynching and murder of Mexicans by white border vigilantes and law enforcement a century ago.

The pretexts for the atrocities varied, Muñoz Martínez explained in an interview this week, but the underlying motives for the Texas terror campaign were bound up in white settlers’ longing for power and control over a population they deemed inferior. The killers sought to break apart and divide communities like El Paso through violence, to disenfranchise Mexican American voters, and to relegate them to manual labor. “These communities were intertwined,” Muñoz Martínez said. “But the kind of anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric that was circulating a hundred years ago did a lot of work to displace that kind of life, to create a division between these kinds of communities.”

A century later, the forces of violent displacement and division are again at work in the borderlands. On Saturday, a 21-year-old white man named Patrick Crusius drove hundreds of miles across Texas to a Walmart in El Paso, just five miles from the border. Crusius staked out the store, law enforcement officials said, before launching his attack. Inside, the aisles were filled with families doing back-to-school shopping. At 10:39 a.m., Crusius returned with an AK-47 and began gunning them down.

When historians look back on the Trump years, El Paso will stand out.

Dr. Stephen Flaherty, director of trauma at Del Sol Medical Center, would later liken the injuries he saw last weekend to wounds he treated as a medical surgeon in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Details about the 22 people who died in the attack, and the lives they lived, continue to emerge. So far, the youngest reported victim was 15-year-old Javier Amir Rodriguez. The oldest was 90-year-old Luis Juarez. Two dozen others were wounded, including two-month-old Paul Gilbert Anchondo, whose parents, Andre and Jordan, were killed shielding their baby boy from the gunfire. At least eight Mexican nationals lost their lives. “We consider this an act of terrorism against the Mexican-American community and the Mexicans living in the United States,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign secretary, said in a statement.

When historians look back on the Trump years, El Paso will stand out. It was the place where the government first tested its family separation policy and, more recently, it’s been the focus of outrage and horror directed at ghastly conditions experienced by immigrants, including children, held in federal detention facilities. But El Paso is more than that. In the face of the Trump administration’s border crackdown, the city has provided a model of compassion and empathy toward migrants. That those features made it a target for a white supremacist attack, one of the deadliest massacres of Mexicans the state has ever seen, is particularly devastating, Muñoz Martínez said.

“People in El Paso have had to do the work of trying to pick up the pieces of the violence of these policies,” she said. “When hundreds of people are released overnight at bus stations in places like El Paso and places like McAllen, it’s the local residents that mobilize to provide support for recent arrivals, and for refugees, and for children.”

“They not only have carried the burden of trying to provide humanitarian aid,” she said. “But now they’re also being targeted with violence.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 14: Vehicles are seen in an intake area under the Metropolitan Detention Center prison as mass arrests by federal immigration authorities, as ordered by the Trump administration, were supposed to begin in major cities across the nation on July 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was expected to be target hundreds of Angelenos for deportation, plus family members and others they encounter and suspect of being undocumented. The city of Los Angeles declared itself a sanctuary city to reflect its policy since the 1970s of not allowing police to help immigration officials because the city wants its immigrant populations to not be afraid to cooperate with police or call in crimes and emergencies. Elected officials and activists have continued to lash out against the raids.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Vehicles are seen in an intake area under the Metropolitan Detention Center prison in Los Angeles as mass arrests by federal immigration authorities were slated to begin across the nation on July 14, 2019.

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

In the wake of Saturday’s attack, there were calls to reorder and expand the government’s long-running war on terrorism. Six former National Security Council counterterrorism directors added their names to a statement calling on the Trump administration to approach domestic terrorism with the same urgency, resources, and strategic vision as the post-9/11 effort to combat international terrorism. Others were more direct in their demands, such as the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who wrote in a now-deleted tweet, “So can we please start a war on terrorism at home now?”

Well-intentioned though they might be, a dangerous bit of historical amnesia undermines demands to replicate the war on terror on U.S. soil. For one, there’s been a war on terror at home for nearly two decades. It’s been felt in Muslim communities infiltrated by undercover informants, and it’s been expressed in the militarization of police departments across the country. Second, the existing war on terror shattered entire regions of the world, fueled the growth of the very groups it sought to eliminate, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, created black sites where Americans engaged in torture, resulted in the creation of a perpetually troubled constellation of agencies known as the Department of Homeland Security, spawned secret watchlists used overwhelmingly against Muslims, and paved the way for the president of the United States to execute an American citizen without trial.

“The last 18 years have shown us that existing terrorism authorities have been and are used to target communities of color and other marginalized communities,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in an interview. “They’ve resulted in bias-based, over-broad suspicion that infringes on the fundamental rights of minority communities, who have asked for safeguards and reform without getting them. Policymakers must learn the right lessons from ongoing abuses and not entrench or enhance authorities that have resulted in the violation of First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights of communities they want to protect.”

“There’s something so profoundly bleak about the idea of using the terror frame and the war on terror, that is still going on and is clearly a failure and disaster, as a positive template for dealing with this.”

The impulse to call for an expanded war on terror in response to mass killings is an extension of the country’s entrenched relationship to guns, says Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and author of the forthcoming book “Gunpower: The System of American Violence.” “People really like to think that there will always be a good person with a gun,” Blanchfield explained. “That, in essence, is the national security framework.” It’s a process of self-soothing, he said, as expressed by a population that feels, on an individual level, helpless in the face of ongoing gun violence: “Because no one individually feels that they can do something, then it must be the authorities who have to do everything.”

“There’s something so profoundly bleak,” he added, “about the idea of using the terror frame and the war on terror, as that is still going on and is clearly a failure and disaster, as a positive template for dealing with this shit. It’s madness.”

The problem is not just rhetorical. When current and former federal law enforcement officials are asked about their approach to policing the kind of violence seen in El Paso, they sometimes suggest that they lack the authorities to address the problem, often pointing to the absence of a federal law against domestic terrorism. On Tuesday, the FBI Agents Association called on Congress to change that, saying that doing so, “would ensure that FBI Agents and prosecutors have the best tools to fight domestic terrorism.”

As The Intercept reported in an investigative series published earlier this year, the issue, historically, has not been a problem of the FBI lacking in tools but instead declining to use the tools they already have in cases of far-right violence.

“It’s this sort of semantic game that they’re playing that we don’t have a domestic terrorism law,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Yes, we do. We have 52 of them.” The author of a forthcoming book, “Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide
How the New FBI Damages Democracy,” German infiltrated white power groups during his days in the bureau. “When I was undercover in the 1990s, working these cases, nobody suggested we didn’t have laws,” he said. Since September 11, German explained, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s top priority, and yet “they don’t know how many people are killed by white supremacists each year. They don’t even bother to count them, much less how many violent white supremacist organizations are active in the United States.”

What the FBI lacks, German maintains, is the will to target and investigate the far-right with anywhere near the zeal it has historically reserved for Muslims, leftist dissidents, and environmental activists. If the FBI made a genuine effort to apply the ample authorities it already has to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism crimes (rather than attempt to predict them), they could confront a truly violent and dangerous movement, German said.

“Unfortunately, I think the war on terror itself was a failed methodology that has driven a lot of the fear and anger and xenophobia that is crystalized in white nationalism,” he reflected. “What you saw was the growth of this anti-Muslim lobby that eventually merged with the white supremacist movement, which was focused on the border already. … It’s not surprising that when a right-wing populist comes along that he can stoke them up in way that is quite dangerous.”

What the former FBI agent today finds “far more scary” is seeing the white power movement’s goals and ideology reflected in government policies.

“All you have to do is look down on the southern border now to see it,” German said, explaining that a government built around an ideology of racist power, one seeking to change the country’s demographics by force, can do more harm to more people than the white power movement could ever dream to. “It’s a very different kind of a problem.”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -JULY 08: A KKK group from North Carolina called the Loyal White Knights protested in Justice Park (formerly Jackson Park) because they aren't happy with decisions being made by the city that will effect Civil War memorials in city parks. This KKK member gave a "White Power" salute to protestors who were giving him the one-finger salute. Less than 50 KKK members attended but hundreds of counter protestors showed up against them. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Loyal White Knights, a KKK group from North Carolina, protests the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., on July 8, 2017.

Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” reads a four-page manifesto Crusius is believed to have posted online shortly before his attack in El Paso.

The idea is not new. The president himself has repeatedly used the word “invasion” to rally his base around policies aimed at curtailing nonwhite immigration, both legal and illegal. Fox News has done the same.

In her 2018 book, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” historian Kathleen Belew links the rise in white power paramilitary violence in the decades preceding the Oklahoma City bombing to the Vietnam War, arguing that foreign militarism played a more significant role in driving domestic terror campaigns than any other factor. In tracing this history, Belew returns to the border repeatedly, telling the story of groups like the Klan Border Watch and the CIA-linked Civilian Materiel Assistance, or CMA, who saw themselves as a bulwark against immigrants and communists making their way north.

While Belew’s period of study ended before the September 11 attacks, the white power movement’s relationship to the border did not. In the mid-2000s, with the Iraq War spinning wildly out of control and the economy collapsing, vigilante groups began cropping up along the U.S.-Mexico divide. They were driven by the emerging, post-9/11 Islamophobia lobby German referred to, as well as conspiracy theories claiming that terrorists were sneaking across the border and Mexicans were plotting to regain control of the southwest through a mass migration campaign known as “reconquista.”

Daniel Denvir, a fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute and author of the forthcoming book “All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It,” argues that reconquista fearmongering was the notion at the core of Trump’s announcement that he was running for president — claiming that the people Mexico was “sending” were dangerous criminals — and has undergirded his approach to immigration ever since.

In building his administration, Trump surrounded himself with the most hard-right figures in American politics. Steve Bannon, the Breitbart executive who sources his views on migration to a racist novel beloved by white nationalists, became a senior White House adviser. Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator devoted to returning American law and immigration enforcement to a pre-civil rights era, was made attorney general. Sessions’ former aide, Stephen Miller, a college associate of the ethnonationalist Richard Spencer, became the powerful architect of the White House’s most aggressive immigration policies — where he remains to this day. Throughout the government, former employees of a handful of think tanks that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as Washington’s “nativist lobby” took up key immigration posts.

“What’s also very important and seldom mentioned is how mainstream, bipartisan politicians have for decades normalized this rhetoric.”

This collective has worked for more than two years to combat the “invasion” on the southern border, pushing forward the most aggressive anti-immigration agenda in recent history. But it’s not just the far-right talking in terms of migrant invasions and immigrant criminals. While national attention has rightfully focused on the link between Trump’s words and the tragedy in El Paso, Denvir said, “what’s also very important and seldom mentioned is how mainstream, bipartisan politicians have for decades normalized this rhetoric.”

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, German worries about the possibility of dark days ahead. “If you look through history, levels of political violence tend to rise around election time,” he said.

Muñoz Martínez is similarly concerned.

A handful of whistleblowers, a congressional investigation, and efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation helped to stem the bloodshed on the border a century ago, but the fix was incomplete. “People weren’t prosecuted,” Muñoz Martínez said. The lack of accountability and closure, she argued, “shaped how people think about Mexicans as being perpetually foreign, as being undeserving of rights.” These ideas were regurgitated by lawmakers, historians, and members of the press in the decades that followed, she went on to say, laying the foundation for the “draconian policies” and “horrific forms of violence” the nation is now witnessing.

“I am deeply troubled that this won’t be curbed soon,” she said.

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