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In Washington state this week, legislators held public hearings to form a domestic violent extremism commission that, if implemented, would make Washington the first in the nation to target extremism with a public health and civic engagement approach. Laura Barrón-López spoke with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson about what his state is doing and how it could be a model for the nation.
Four members of the far right anti-government group the Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy this week for their role in the January 6 insurrection, once again shining a light on the dangerous rise of domestic extremism in America.
Laura Barrón-López looks at what one state is doing to combat those forces and how it could be a model for the nation.
In Washington state this week, legislators held public hearings to form a domestic violent extremism commission that, if implemented, would make Washington the first in the nation to target extremism with a public health and civic engagement approach.
The state attorney general's office authored the study that recommends the commission and other steps to prevent domestic terrorism and hate crimes.
Here to discuss that effort is the attorney general, Bob Ferguson.
Attorney General, thanks for joining us.
This report was in response to the rise in white supremacy and domestic extremism in your state and across the country. Washington ranks fifth in the country for white supremacist incidents. What actions are you recommending that your state take?
Bob Ferguson, Washington State Attorney General:
Yes, thanks so much for having me on, Laura, on this important subject. I appreciate it.
So in a nutshell, after a very detailed report that my team has put together in talking to a lot of experts around the country, the recommendations are first and foremost to create that commission that you mentioned at the outset, a commission that is specifically focused on this issue.
And that's not something we have seen around the country with other states. It's really one takeaway from this report is, I think it's appropriate for states to take a more active role on addressing domestic violent extremism. And this commission can put forth recommendations to really address this challenge here in Washington state.
You define in the report, you define domestic violent extremism as including extremist and political violence. That includes online disinformation. It includes extremist recruitment, anti-government ideologies.
But in a public hearing this week that you held in response to this potential commission being built, there was some criticism in your state about that broad definition of domestic violent extremism.
Take a listen.
Lara Gabriel, Washington:
This Orwellian bill would cause Washingtonians, including parents, nurses, doctors, and vulnerable and marginalized communities, to be afraid of expressing their opinions or of speaking misinformation, for fear of being labeled or penalized as a domestic violence extremist.
What's your response to that concern?
Well, of course, we have public hearings for a reason, to hear all voices. And our state legislature is no different than any state legislature. We have all sorts of voices at the table. Our response is pretty straightforward.
Our report is very clear that we think a definition of domestic terrorism at the federal level is a useful starting point. But it focuses strictly on sort of threats of bodily harm, of killing somebody, for example, which, from our perspective, is simply too narrow for the great threat that we see with the increase of radicalization, for example.
So we're trying to broaden that term to address things that are not specifically a threat to somebody, but where the state can take some action in prevention, for example, take a more holistic approach, a public health approach, to address what we all see and know is happening in communities all across the country.
So, we appreciate the feedback. But we think that feedback is a bit of an exaggeration, to put it mildly.
And then you also recommend a more public health approach, one that's led by the community and by different community institutions.
What does that look in practice, though?
Yes, so the way to think of this — and it's fairly detailed — but, at a high level, up to this point, as a nation, really, we have addressed this type of extremism from a law enforcement standpoint, to criminalize folks who engage in that behavior, which is, of course, entirely appropriate.
Those folks need to be held accountable. What we're trying to get at is something a little bit different, to broaden the scope, look at it from a public health standpoint, because that is what it is. We should view this holistically.
Let's engage in prevention, of getting folks — avoiding them being radicalized in the first place. If somebody is radicalized, and wants removal, move away from that, how can we help them with counseling, for example, to get them away from that ideology?
So, looking at from a more holistic standpoint, we think, addresses prevention, addresses helping folks who've been radicalized and take a more holistic view of this to address what is a huge challenge, not just in Washington state, but all across the country.
On radicalization specifically, you mentioned that looking at social media and the role of social media and online disinformation in radicalizing people.
And in many of these recent cases of violent extremism, including in the case of the Oath Keepers that were just found guilty of seditious conspiracy, these aren't young men. These are men in their 40s, 50s, even in their 60s. Usually, when we talk about harmful content on social media, we're talking about how it impacts younger people, impressionable young people.
So how do you prevent older citizens from being drawn into these alt-right conspiracy theory groups, like the Oath Keepers or anti-government groups?
You raise a really good point, Laura, right, about the large number of folks in our community, not simply young people, who are impacted by this.
And that's what creating a commission is all about. We'd be the first state to create the commission that you mentioned at the outset. And that would bring together experts to engage on making specific recommendations on exactly this kind of issue. What can we do to prevent the radicalization of folks who are a bit older, as you said, their 40s, their 50s, their 60s, and help them to get out of that if they are radicalized.
So, there are all sorts of things that experts have recommended in this area. Our goal is to create that commission. Our report is a first step. Now let's move to creating the commission, get experts together who can put together a plan for the entire state of Washington, working with community members to make recommendations to really address exactly that type of challenge that we see all across the country every time it seems we pick up the newspaper.
And, lastly, Attorney General, I did want to ask you about the mass shooting in California in Monterey Park.
It has caused a lot of fear among the Asian American community. And you specifically cite that there has been a rise among — a fear among the Asian American community in Washington state as well due to hate crimes.
How specifically would your domestic violent extremism plan address hate crimes?
Well, it's going to address hate crimes because that's one piece of what we're seeing all across the country, but especially a rise in Washington state.
So we have engaged in putting into this report with communities the Asian American community and many others in our state to see what they're experiencing and what recommendations we can put together to really address this in a more holistic fashion. That's but one example of what we see all around the country and what this commission, if put in place by our state legislature, will be able to grapple with and make specific recommendations, and working with the community to do so.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. Appreciate it.
Watch the Full Episode
Laura Barrón-López is the White House Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, where she covers the Biden administration for the nightly news broadcast. She is also a CNN political analyst.
Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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