Sara Rubin here, after taking a short trip down memory lane. Our newsroom was talking (virtually, as we do these days) about civics education when we were kids. I remember few specifics from those lessons, except that I hated “current events” activities (ironic for someone who became a journalist) and watching Inauguration Day on a tiny TV screen. I don’t remember whose inauguration, if it was live or historical, but something about the pomp and ritual, the inclusion of song and poetry, helped me understand the significance of the day.
Tomorrow’s inauguration of Joe Biden as 46th president of the United States will include all of that ritual, minus the tradition of the outgoing president to welcome him. It will also feature an unprecedented amount of security, on the heels of an attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that turned deadly, and for which police were woefully unprepared.
I called Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, to ask what he might be watching for tomorrow as far as the potential for terrorism. “Washington, D.C. is more fortified, so I think the chances of something happening in Washington, D.C. are low, unless it’s some kind of insider threat,” he says. (In case you needed evidence that the idea of an insider threat is not purely abstract, Blazakis points to the example of a former Pacific Grove police officer who was investigated for his association with the 3-Percenters, one of the anti-government groups represented at the Capitol Jan. 6.)
What Blazakis is worried about as far as potential violence should worry all of us. He says extremist actors are more likely to select “soft targets,” both on Inauguration Day and beyond, and he offers up this list: local district offices of members of Congress who voted to certify the election result; individuals who work for social media companies that blocked President Trump; and media outlets, partly because Trump has incited a media-as-enemy vitriol over the last four years.
Even more unnerving to me than his list of potential soft targets is that Blazakis sees evidence of right-wing extremism in our community. The signs are often more subtle, even invisible to the untrained eye. A home in his neighborhood features a “Jesus 2020” sign and a white sign with an evergreen tree—both associated with extremist groups.
“We should understand that these extreme views circulate on the Central Coast, in Monterey County,” he says. “We shouldn’t look at what happened in Washington, D.C, as an event that is distant from us.”
I was surprised by the violence at the Capitol. Blazakis, having studied extremism for years, was unsurprised. He watched as the ecosystem of right-wing extremist groups grew in opposition to having a Black president during the Obama presidency, then coalesced under explicit encouragement from Trump. And that doesn’t go away after Inauguration Day.
How to begin to de-radicalize those extremist actors? Blazakis says it’s not easy. “I don’t think the government itself can address it,” he says. “This is a challenge that is going to require government solutions, tech solutions, private-sector solutions, educational solutions. Those will have to center around the next generation of people growing up in this online world we all inhabit right now.
“One big reason these narratives are so successful is the spread of disinformation. That’s at the heart of what we are seeing.”
Surprising or not, local or not, we need to make sure both current and future generations know that political violence is not normal, and we are better than this.
-Sara Rubin, editor, firstname.lastname@example.org