Representative Jackie Speier attends a press conference about the introduction of legislation to address the military’s response to sexual violence and missing service members in September 2020. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock
On 6 January, Jackie Speier was one of scores of members of Congress threatened by the mob of violent Trump supporters and white supremacists who stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of the presidential election.
Along with her peers, she was told to wear a gas mask and ordered to lie prostrate on the marble floor as the baying crowd pounded on the chamber door and the sound of gunfire rent the air. The terror of that day induced in her a flashback, to the events that brought her into politics in the first place when she lay bleeding from five gunshot wounds in the Guyana jungle, not knowing whether she would live or die.
It was 18 November 1978, and she had travelled to Guyana as part of a congressional investigation into the Jonestown settlement and its cult leader, Jim Jones. The fact-finding group of 24 were ambushed by cult members on a jungle airstrip; the congressman for whom Speier then worked, Leo Ryan, and four others were murdered.
Speier, shot five times and left for dead, had to wait 22 hours for help to arrive. She told herself as she lay on the tarmac that if she survived the ordeal she would devote herself to public service.
That devotion, born of her bullet wounds, can be traced in a direct line from the Jonestown massacre, through the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January, to her renewed efforts today to protect the United States from the threat of violent extremism. She is determined to strengthen safeguards against cults – whether of the Jonestown or Donald Trump variety and the white supremacist sedition he unleashed.
“Jim Jones was a religious cult leader, Donald Trump is a political cult leader,” Speier told the Guardian. “As a victim of violence and of a cult leader, I am sensitive to conduct that smacks of that. We have got to be wary of anyone who can have such control over people that they lose their ability to think independently.”
Speier stood for her first election soon after the Jonestown massacre. Since 2008 the Democratic congresswoman has represented most of the district in California that her gunned-down mentor, Ryan, served before his death.
The formative experience that gave rise to her political career gives Speier an unusually sharp perspective on the danger posed by the Capitol insurrection. She thinks of it as “groupthink”, saying that “when the groupthink is about overthrowing the government, then we’ve got a serious problem.”
Since 6 January, Speier has used her political muscle as a member of the House armed services and intelligence committees to press for urgent reforms designed to shore up protections against white supremacist and extremist violence. Last month she wrote to Joe Biden and his newly confirmed defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, calling for a “new sense of urgency” following the “appalling events at the Capitol”.
In her letter, Speier told the president and defense secretary that she had become “increasingly alarmed” about the connections between violent extremist groups and military personnel. She warned them that current efforts to contain the problem were “insufficient to the threat from these extremist movements”.
In her Guardian interview, Speier said that the current crisis of white supremacy and the military has been brewing for many years. “I thought it was urgent a year ago when I held a hearing on violent extremism in the military and was astonished at the number of service members who are recruited in part because of their training to these extremist groups.”
She added: “It’s not as though we haven’t been given a heads-up.”
A recent analysis by CNN of the first 150 people to be arrested for participating in the Capitol insurrection found that at least 21 had military experience. Some were still serving, and eight were former marines with elite training in the art of warfare.
Speier said that such training spelled trouble for the nation. “With military training you become skilled at the use of lethal weapons and to ambush and gain control. The training is important to fight our enemies, but now it is being used as a recruitment tool for organisations engaged in violent extremism.”
The congresswoman pointed to the case of retired Lieutenant Colonel Larry Brock who has been charged with unlawful entry and disorderly conduct at the Capitol. She said: “An Air Force Academy graduate was identified in his early life as an excellent military leader who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and here he is on the Senate floor holding zip-tie handcuffs.”
Prosecutors said Brock’s handcuffs were intended to take hostages.
Following the 2020 hearing that Speier convened as chair of the military personnel subcommittee, she proposed the creation of a standalone offense of violent extremism under the uniform code of military justice. The Pentagon supported the idea, but it was squashed at the insistence of Trump and with resistance from Republicans in the US Senate.
Now she plans to reintroduce the proposal into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. “Sometimes people have to be hit over the head before they recognize that there’s an issue, and certainly January 6 has been that two-by-four on the head,” she said.
Under the existing military code, service members have to be “active” participants in an extremist group to be disciplined. Speier’s panel heard of an air force officer who was engaged with Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group that recruits on US college campuses.
Even after a formal investigation, the officer was allowed to continue military service. “So you’ve got a problem with lackadaisical enforcement of a law that allows you to be a participant in a white supremacist group, you just can’t be an ‘active’ participant.”
A Military Times poll last year found that a third of all serving troops, rising to more than half of black and other minority service members, said they had witnessed white nationalism within the ranks. Dozens of active-duty and veteran military service members have been arrested in recent years in connection with terrorist plots and murders.
Last July an air force sergeant linked to the anti-government boogaloo movement was charged with murdering a federal security officer in Oakland, California.
Speier is urging Biden to use his executive powers to identify white supremacy and extremism as a specific threat within the military. She also wants him to sign an executive order that would ensure that all military recruits and those seeking top security clearances are screened for signs of violent extremist activity on their social media accounts.
“It’s astonishing to me that we have to be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century as it relates to how social media has become a tool for these violent fringe organizations.”
Speier said that all these measures were needed urgently even before 6 January. Trump’s open dialogue with extremist organizations had supercharged the need for action, she said.
“Donald Trump had a code for talking to these groups. ‘There’s good people on both sides,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘You’re special.’ He recognized that they were valuable to him, and they recognized that he could amplify their recruiting. It was a toxic brew of personal gain, and it put at risk the entire democracy of this country.”
ARTICLE SOURCE: theguardian.com