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The Proud Boys indictment comes as political violence evolves

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Tomorrow, the January 6 House select committee begins its widely anticipated public hearings about the planning of the violent attack on and in the nation's Capitol building. But earlier this week, there were more developments in the government's attempt to hold people accountable for that day. The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, and four other leaders of that violent far-right group were indicted on the serious charge of seditious conspiracy. All this comes as the threat of political violence in the U.S. continues to evolve in dangerous ways.

NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us. Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi there.

PFEIFFER: Odette, the Department of Homeland Security periodically assesses what it calls the country's threat environment. It does that in what's called a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin. The most latest one was issued yesterday. What did it say?

YOUSEF: Well, Sacha, it says that we remain in a heightened threat environment and one that could become even more complicated in the coming months. You know, these bulletins are always kind of vague. They don't always name specific threats or the events that might trigger the violence. But in my reporting, Sacha, experts have raised a number of upcoming events that could potentially light that fuse. You know, one of them, of course, is the midterm elections in the fall, but we're also now looking at the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade this month. And just today, we learned of the arrest of an armed man outside Justice Kavanaugh's house.

PFEIFFER: Right. And, Odette, when we look at this increased legal crackdown on the Proud Boys' leader this week, is it believed that that's likely to have any effect in coming months on the risk of more political violence?

YOUSEF: You know, it's really hard to say. Extremism researchers have told me that it is important that these prosecutions happen. You know, for many years, Sacha, the Proud Boys engaged in violent street activity in several states without any real legal consequences. And so finally demonstrating accountability for some of these alleged crimes is important.

But at the same time, if we continue to focus on organized extremist or paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers to get a handle on the extremist threat, we're ignoring the reality that extremism has become much more mainstream today. I spoke with Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and she likens that to willfully putting on blinders.

CASSIE MILLER: This is really something that has seeped into the political waters. A lot of the ideas that were once really within the purview of the extreme right are part of the Republican Party now. And so that is radicalizing a lot of people, and that is more difficult to solve.

YOUSEF: And, Sacha, survey after survey has shown this to be the case. We're seeing a far larger proportion of Americans embrace the idea that violence may be the only way to settle our political differences.

PFEIFFER: And, Odette, if these views are becoming so mainstream in the general public, it seems that would make it much more difficult to monitor and prevent violence domestically.

YOUSEF: Yes, that job has become more challenging, especially since January 6, where, you know, you'll recall that many journalists and extremism researchers were sounding the alarm well in advance of that attack, saying that individuals and organizations were openly planning for violence on social media platforms. And yet we saw law enforcement and federal bodies woefully unprepared that day. Well, since January 6, these elements have largely moved away from mainstream social media platforms and toward more private platforms or channels. So the monitoring is more challenging, and the nature of the threat is also more complicated.

You know, as more Americans consider violence as a means to achieve political goals, we really could be dealing with a much more diffuse set of actors here. And as we saw with recent acts of targeted violence in Buffalo and even Uvalde, identifying these individuals beforehand is very challenging for law enforcement.

PFEIFFER: Odette, quickly, this seems pretty bleak. Any solutions ahead?

YOUSEF: Well, conflict scholars believe that the way out is through the work of local actors, not necessarily law enforcement, to get trained in bystander intervention, de-escalation and fostering dialogue within their communities.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.