January 8, 2023
On Christmas Day, four utility substations were knocked out in Pierce County, Washington, shutting off electricity to more than 14,000 homes on the holiday. The previous month, on Thanksgiving, there were similar attacks on utility substations in both Washington and Oregon. Officials and customers are concerned that these attacks, following a similar but larger attack in North Carolina, are part of a new trend of domestic terrorism.
The extreme right has long had the soft-targets of America’s infrastructure in its sights. For decades, their guidebook has been The Turner Diaries, a novel about a future fictional race war in America. It was a crucial part of Timothy McVeigh’s planning of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. The book, and subsequent right-wing manifestos, call for “patriots” to attack infrastructure to destabilize society and “accelerate” the chaos that will lead to a civil war. In the late 1990s, there were numerous militia plots to attack power stations and dams leading up to Y2K and the gang of extremists who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer in 2020 also plotted to blow up a bridge.
With the advent of social media, shifts in demographics and the economy, and the influence of right-wing celebrities like Donald Trump and Alex Jones, more and more Americans have fallen into the conspiracy theory-driven counterculture of violent extremism. But each of those individuals is a person acting on the information and influence that surrounds them. Those forces can be countered and the subsequent violence can be prevented. According to the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, at the University of Chicago, 87% of the individuals arrested for attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were not members of any identifiable group, like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Most were just swept up in the moment.
This gives us a vector for intervention. If those ramping towards violence, either because they read The Turner Diaries or watched one too many episodes of Info Wars, as well as those MAGA followers who are angry the midterm elections didn’t go their way, can be reached, deescalation is possible. Nearly every future domestic terrorist has a person in their orbit that can talk them off the ledge of violence. These “credible messengers” might be friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors, who just take the extra time to appeal to the individual who is inching toward violence. This intervention could be a heartfelt conversation about the real damage of violent actions, or it could just be grabbing a coffee and having a chat about the value on non-violence. According to research, even watching cat videos can reduce violent impulses.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin in late 2022 stating that infrastructure locations will be likely targets by extremists in the coming years. Attacks on the relatively accessible targets can have a massive impact on civilian populations. At least 2.5 million Americans rely on durable medical devices that can create life-threatening situations during power outages. Many millions more rely on the power grid for work, communication, and keeping the lights on in our homes. Extremists’ desire to create chaos to force their insurgent revolution make this issue, quite literally, one of life or death.
It’s time to activate the credible messengers in our communities. Instead of shying away from uncomfortable conversations with folks that seem to be “crazy radicals,” we can train people on how to better engage with those who are ramping up to violent action. The approach might not prevent every instance of domestic terrorism, but it can surely lower the body count. So if you’ve got a family member who loves guns and hates the government, invite them over to watch some cat videos. You might be saving lives.