Oregon’s report on domestic terrorism gives good starting points to counter violence

Curbing the kind of violence seen in Oregon over time requires careful attention to free speech rights

April 8, 2022 5:30 am

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, left, recently had her office complete an analysis of domestic terrorism in Oregon, proposing state actions. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The problem of domestic terrorism isn’t new, but some of the possible routes to a solution in Oregon probably are new at least to many of us.

The report where they can be found comes from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Audits Division. This technically isn’t an audit – that would entail more cost and time – but it does some of the same work, laying out problems and correctives.

In this case: “The alarming risk of domestic terrorism and violent extremist attacks.”

The prevalence of this kind of violence in Oregon is a little surprising: sixth highest among all states for domestic violent extremism incidents, accounting for one tenth of all cases nationally in 2020.

The report cites the “violent domestic violent extremism attacks on the State Capitol Building on December 21, 2020” (the cover photo depicts the event) and says that year was “unprecedented by the number of domestic violent extremist incidents in Oregon and nationwide.”

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation and the violent Portland protests in the summer of 2020 were mentioned as well.

There’s not a lot of speculation about why so much of it is happening here.

Politically, action on the right may grow out of frustration with a mostly blue state, and on the left, it may come from urban activist concentrations; but those are not unusual conditions nationally. (Reverse the labels and the same dynamics could apply in, say, Idaho). The report does say, “Domestic terrorists draw from many philosophies and world views to justify illegal acts. They can be motivated to commit crimes in the name of ideas such as animal rights, environmental rights, white supremacy, anti-government beliefs, and anarchism. Yet expression of these ideas, aside from criminal activities, is generally constitutionally protected.”

Only the final stages of these incidents are illegal, subject to government action. Most of what comes before – including expression of opinion – is legally protected, and often comes from individuals or barely noticed small groups. Taking action at that level could feel like wrestling fog.

There are no slam-dunk solutions, but the report gives us a bunch of steps that taken together could help.

The report says two-thirds of the states have laws defining domestic violent extremism. Oregon isn’t one of them. Definition is a necessary first step.

Oregon has a Homeland Security Council, but: “state oversight agencies lack consistent and connected plans and outcome goals increasing the risk of gaps or redundancies in the state approach for monitoring and addressing.” There’s no strategy.

Or, apparently, seriousness: “The Oregon Homeland Security Council, a governing body comprised of numerous high-level officials, meets sporadically, and does not have a documented statewide strategy with specific measurable outcomes for domestic violent extremism. Relationships between DOJ, OSP, and local law enforcement agencies are not always formalized, leading to ad hoc, relationship-based cooperation which presents a sustainability risk when turnover occurs.”

Some improvements, not widely recognized at the time, were made through legislation passed last year. They range from efforts to reorganize and improve coordination among state agencies to, through House Bill 2936, mandating “a uniform background checklist for law enforcement units to implement during hiring processes. Specifically, this checklist must include ‘an assessment of the applicant’s tendencies, feelings and opinions toward diverse cultures, races and ethnicities and differing social, political, economic and life statuses’.”

Some recent funding to cover areas like cybersecurity, drone monitoring (of risky events), and other newer technology might offer an edge, if used the right way.

All of this only gets to problems in the late stages. The problem isn’t easy since free speech considerations are involved. The report also has some suggestions for short-circuiting violence before it gets far.

One involves an approach called “attitudinal inoculation.” The report describe what that involves: “The premise of this work is founded in the understanding misinformation is pernicious in its ability to stick with individuals; false claims are often believed at an emotional, rather than rational, level. The goal then becomes to help individuals better recognize and resist misleading messages. To do this, researchers have deployed studies where they introduce brief clips that demonstrate techniques used to influence along with a presenter who explains what is being done. Results of these studies have, so far, demonstrated effectiveness at equipping individuals to resist future messages.”

Maybe schools could introduce this kind of literacy. Maybe in the third or fourth grade.

The report added that some states (it cites Colorado as an example) have had some success in developing local anti-violence efforts.

There’s not one single answer to this kind of violence. But there are ways, this report shows, to turn the dial down, and craft a solution.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.