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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden visits Buffalo to mourn shooting victims and denounce those espousing hate

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Saturday’s racist massacre at a Tops Friendly Market supermarket during a speech at the Delavan Grider Community Center in Buffalo, N.Y., May 17, 2022.

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Peter Baker

President Joe Biden traveled to Buffalo, N.Y. on Tuesday to denounce the racist massacre in a predominantly Black neighborhood as “terrorism motivated by a hateful and perverse ideology,” the White House press secretary said, adding that Biden would also call for stricter gun control measures.

While the president plans to describe last weekend’s shooting at Tops market as racist terrorism, it appeared unlikely that he would call out by name conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News or certain Republican members of Congress who have amplified the racist replacement theory that motivated the shooter.

Asked why the White House would not directly condemn those who amplified the false, fringe conspiracy theory, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “The people who spread this filth know who they are, and they should be ashamed of themselves, but I’m not going to give them or their obnoxious ideas they’re pushing the attention that they desperately want.”

The president will be confronting the sort of violent white extremism displayed when neo-Nazis and right-wing militias marched into Charlottesville, Virginia, a moment Biden has often said drove him to run for president to undertake a “battle for the soul of America.” But the careful line he appeared to be drawing underscored the challenge for a president who came to office preaching unity in figuring out how to take on those preaching hate.

Carlson and Republican leaders such as Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York have employed the kind of provocative language that encourages racial resentment and served to inject radical ideas such as replacement theory — the idea that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to replace and disempower white Americans — into the mainstream on the political right.

Biden, while denouncing domestic extremism, has mostly shied away from a sustained effort to tie it to leading conservatives despite pressure from some on the progressive left to offer a more full-throated condemnation.

Whenever Biden does speak out more assertively about divisive politics, such as on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, he has found himself accused of violating his own promise to bring harmony to the country, leaving him in something of a political box, trapped by his desire to be a unifier while feeling compelled to take on the forces rending the country apart.

“If he strays anywhere beyond thoughts and prayers, predictably people will scream that he’s politicizing this,” said Michael Waldman, who was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “But it was a political crime, ugly political violence. It would be wrong to act otherwise.”

Jean-Pierre said Biden’s visit was mainly focused on comforting “the families of the 10 people whose lives were so senselessly taken in this horrific shooting.”

“Watching what happened in Charlottesville was a major factor in the president deciding to run,” Jean-Pierre said Monday. “Many of those dark voices still exist today, and the president is determined as he was back then and he is determined today to make sure that we fight back against those forces of hate and evil and violence.”

During his short stay in Buffalo, Biden and first lady Jill Biden were visiting the Tops market memorial and meeting with law enforcement officials and relatives of the victims before the president delivers a speech.

The bloodshed once again renewed the national debate over gun control, a prime example of Washington’s paralyzed politics.

A White House spokesperson said Monday that the issue remained a top priority for Biden.

Biden has taken steps to focus government resources on preventing domestic extremist attacks after the country spent decades prioritizing the threat of foreign terrorism. In a conversation in 2019 with Janet Napolitano, a former homeland security secretary, Biden recalled the Obama administration’s decision in 2009 to rescind a report warning that U.S. military veterans were vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups. Biden said he thought Napolitano was “prescient in talking about right-wing extremism and violence in America and motivated by white supremacists.”

But the United States has at times struggled to directly acknowledge, let alone develop an effective response to, the threat of domestic extremism. The Trump administration slashed funding for grants issued to nonprofits and law enforcement agencies that focus on domestic terrorism, cutting a budget in the Homeland Security Department from $20 million during the Obama administration to less than $3 million before much of the funding was restored in 2020. Some White House officials also sought to suppress the phrase “domestic terrorism” as President Donald Trump’s Justice Department shifted federal prosecutors and FBI agents from investigations into violent white supremacists to cases involving rioters or anarchists.

“You have to know who your enemy is and the threat is,” said Elizabeth Neumann, the assistant homeland security secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention under Trump. “Trump was never willing to acknowledge that. Biden has.”

But she said even with the president’s willingness to describe the threat of deadly white supremacy, the federal government has not made enough progress in working with the authorities to prevent violent extremism.

The Biden administration last June unveiled a national strategy to combat violent extremism, calling for additional hiring of intelligence analysts, improving collaboration with social media companies to take down violent videos and increased funding for digital literacy programs to train the public to identify hateful content and resist recruitment by extremists. The FBI issued three times as many domestic terrorism assessments for local authorities in 2021 as it did the previous year, according to a senior official. But the official also acknowledged the difficulty of policing extremist language on online platforms or amplified by commentators while the government is abiding by the First Amendment.

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