Last month, I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The 400-acre memorial, administered by the U.S. Park Service, is just north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the historic Lincoln Highway, which also passes through Fort Wayne.
The memorial opened in 2015, 14 years after passengers on United Flight 93 caused the plane to crash 160 miles short of its hijackers' intended destination, the U.S. Capitol, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Those passengers were ordinary people, and they were heroes. My emotions were heightened as I reflected on their bravery – and as I tried not to dwell on the undeniable terror of that day – while I walked down a tree-lined path to the crash site. The morning was humid but breezy and the memorial was nearly deserted.
Feeling a little lonely, I called my sister to describe the scene. We talked about what had changed in America since that day almost 20 years before, when we were just kids. Eventually I said goodbye, feeling less lonely but just as sad.
Then I overheard something that yanked my attention back to the emotional present: “Sounds like that man was asking to be the next George Floyd.”
Suddenly, the May 25 death of one man, Floyd, was juxtaposed with the deaths of many on Sept. 11, 2001. The invocation of Floyd's name injected the horrors of our present day into the sober atmosphere of the memorial, inexorably linking the terror of his killing with the terror of 9/11 in my mind.
In 2020, in America, there is a domestic terror campaign being carried out by white supremacists and anti-governmental extremists. Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis Police Department officer, was a victim of this campaign.
The Department of Homeland Security was created after 9/11 to protect the country from threats posed by foreign terrorist organizations. By the department's own assessment, today the greater threat is domestic terrorism and homegrown violence.
In October 2019, then-acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan affirmed that white nationalism is one of the most dangerous threats to our country. This announcement came after the department had spent the previous decade treating the rising threat of far-right nationalism with skepticism and even denial. McAleenan admitted, “In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation.”
The acknowledgment and promised shift in strategy would be short-lived.
This month, a whistleblower complaint alleged that the current acting secretary, Chad Wolf, has since directed top Homeland Security analysts to downplay the threat of violent white supremacists. Wolf's No. 2 at the department, Ken Cuccinelli, ordered the whistleblower to “modify intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy appear less severe,” according to a New York Times account.
I fear that more ordinary Americans will fall victim to this domestic terror campaign. The violent events of this summer demonstrate the 2019 assessment was true. Too many Americans treat the reality that violent white nationalists live among us and are our neighbors with caustic indifference and denial.
The conversation invoking Floyd's name that I overheard was between a U.S. Park Service ranger and a groundskeeper. I would later learn that the men (both white) were probably talking about an act of violence committed the night before, just a few miles up the road on the Lincoln Highway.
Just after midnight on Aug. 25, near the small town of Schellsburg, Pennsylvania, a group of people had been attacked by an unknown armed assailant. When the group came under fire, its members were nearing the end of a nearly 800-mile trek from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement.
White supremacists and their enablers deserve our derision. Their victims demand our acknowledgment. Just as I pay my respects to the 9/11 victims of a foreign terror campaign, I mourn and honor the life of George Floyd and all other victims of the current domestic terror campaign.
Audrey Van Gilder is a Fort Wayne attorney.