When an alleged white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and members of Congress from both parties were quick to call it an act of terrorism. Yet law enforcement officials face obstacles to charging James Alex Fields Jr. as a terrorist. The Justice Department’s civil rights division is focused on whether Fields committed a hate crime, Politico reports. Federal officials are severely limited in their ability to crack down on domestic extremist groups, even those who spew hate-filled rhetoric, acquire arms and advocate violence.
Over the past decade, suspects accused of extreme right-wing violence have accounted for far more attacks in the U.S. than those linked to foreign Islamic groups. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security broadly track dozens of neo-Nazi, “sovereign” and other white Christian militant groups. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan have many more legal protections that make their members and sympathizers much harder targets. “There have been strong constraints historically on the FBI’s ability to investigate political movements in the United States and to collect intelligence without a clear indication that the commission of a crime is imminent,” said J.M. Berger of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. “Any change to those restrictions would really be a Pandora’s box.” A crucial issue is “material support,” a legal term that opens the door to federal terrorism charges based on connections to foreign terrorist organizations. Any person who takes tangible action to support a foreign terror group like ISIS can face a material support for terrorism charge. It’s not clear that such charges can be filed when the organization involved is a domestic terrorist or hate group.