During the late 1960s, the last time the U.S. faced mass unrest on this level, militant groups like the Weather Underground spoke about their desire to “bring the war back home”—meaning, to bring the struggle of the Viet Cong and other leftist guerrilla movements to the U.S. homeland. Today, by contrast, it seems to be the U.S. political leaders who want to bring the war home. The heavily armed police, National Guardsmen, and Black Hawk helicopters confronting protesters reflect the rhetoric, legal framework, and military tactics developed over 20 years of the global war on terrorism. Now that approach is being applied to the conflict playing out on American streets.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump announced that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” He almost certainly doesn’t have the legal authority to do this—the U.S. only designates foreign terrorist organizations—and it’s a stretch to even call antifa, a shorthand for “anti-fascist” activists, a loosely coordinated, sometimes militant movement that mobilizes against the far-right, an organization. Even Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security says there’s little evidence that organized extremists are behind the current unrest.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, protesters have gathered at demonstrations in all 50 states. There’s no central organizing group behind the marches, and antifa constitute a tiny portion of participants. But an extremist threat is necessary in order to justify turning the law enforcement response into a quasi-military operation, and other officials quickly took their cues from Trump.
Florida congressman Matthew Gaetz wrote, in a tweet flagged by Twitter for glorifying violence, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?”
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote, “let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. … No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” (He later denied that by “no quarter,” he was calling for the insurrectionists to be massacred, a common understanding of the term and a war crime.)
In a call with state governors, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called on them to “dominate the battle space” in order to overwhelm the protests, a startling description of American cities. Esper later clarified that he was merely using the “military lexicon that I grew up with” to describe an area of operations rather than the people within it. On the same call, Trump told governors, “And you can’t do the deal where they get one week in jail,” he said. “These are terrorists. These are terrorists. And they’re looking to do bad things to our country.”
Monday night featured the grim spectacle of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, wearing military fatigues to accompany Trump for a photo-op across the street from the White House. A Black Hawk helicopter operated by the D.C. National Guard flew low over protesters in what the New York Times called a “a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents.” The capital was heavily militarized on Tuesday night with combat vehicles on the streets and rows of armored National Guard troops guarding the Lincoln Memorial.
Trump has also threatened to deploy active military forces—as opposed to state-controlled National Guard—as an “occupying force” to “dominate” the protesters. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan writes, “Active-duty battalions trained to fight in places like Fallujah, Iraq, and Kandahar, Afghanistan—would only aggravate the turmoil.”
No doubt, if this happens, it will be justified by the need to defeat antifa “terrorists.” Even before Trump, the federal government’s definition of a terrorist has gotten looser and looser. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force against the perpetrators of the attacks and nations that harbored them. But the authorization was sufficiently vague and flexible that over the years it has been used to legally justify military operations in more than a dozen countries around the world, sometimes against groups, like ISIS in Syria for instance, that didn’t even exist in 2001. U.S. troops have been deployed on so many counterterrorism missions that key senators sometimes aren’t even aware of what countries they’re deployed to. While theoretically these missions are meant to protect the U.S. from terrorist threats, often—as in the case of the escalating drone war in Somalia—American firepower has been deployed in local conflicts with little discernible connection to U.S. interests at a high cost in civilian casualties.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pushed presidential powers to use military force without congressional action to an absurd extent in their bids to justify the intervention in Libya, the airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s military, and this year’s killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The practice of targeted killings and drone strikes has obliterated the distinction between “war zones” and non–war zones, making the entire world a legitimate space (a “battle space,” if you will) for military action, so long as a potential terrorist threat can be identified, no matter how minor.
It was only a matter of time before this global battlefield would come to encompass the U.S. as well. In fact, the groundwork has been laid for years. Dozens of police departments have established counterterrorism units funded by the federal government. As the threat of foreign terrorism on American soil has dwindled, these efforts have been turned on Americans.
Notably, the New York Police Department has operated an extensive and well-funded counterterrorism unit that engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of Muslim U.S. citizens in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The counterterrorism funding has been used to create a massive surveillance camera network throughout the city, complete with a searchable image database. A federal program has transferred billions of dollars in surplus military hardware to police departments around the country—which has been on display in the militarized law enforcement response over the past week. It’s often said that the U.S. military shouldn’t act as the world’s policemen, but increasingly, U.S. policemen look more like the military.
Trump is now the third U.S. president to take full advantage of the legal liberties provided by the global war on terror. He has made frequent threats of military force against U.S. adversaries and ordered scorched-earth counterterrorism tactics that often border on war crimes, while frequently claiming he wants to bring U.S. troops home. Many, including his political opponents, share a desire to bring them home after decades of war, but bringing them home to continue fighting, this time against U.S. citizens, is probably not what most people had in mind.