On the night of September 11, 2001, 150 members of the House and Senate stood on the Capitol steps singing “God Bless America” in unison to signify to the world that Americans stood together in the face of terror.
On the day after Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and opened fire on hundreds of innocent people at an Orlando nightclub, the House floor devolved into near chaos as Democratic members walked out of the chamber after a moment of silence for the victims. Instead of unity in the face of danger, Congress stood divided and polarized, politicized to the point of collapse after years of gridlock and bitter partisan fighting.
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, who led the Democrats’ walkout, called the moment of silence “a ritual of impotence,” saying he would not be a part of symbolically acknowledging another mass shooting in America when he knew Congress would do nothing to prevent the next one.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., whose old House district included the Sandy Hook Elementary School, echoed Himes' anger at Congress' inertia in his own filibuster on the Senate floor Wednesday. "I've had enough," Murphy said. "And I just couldn't bring myself to come back to the Senate this week and act as if its business as usual."
Murphy and Himes were talking specifically about gun control measures, which have been tethered to inaction by the politics of the NRA. But he could just as easily have been speaking about Congress’ response to the threat of homegrown terror, especially terror inspired by violent extremism. It’s a complex and evolving danger that Congress has been warned about for nearly a decade and done too little to confront.
In 2007, then-FBI director Robert Mueller warned the Senate Homeland Security Committee that homegrown attacks by Americans with no formal links to terrorist organizations had become one of the gravest threats the country faced. The committee investigated and produced a report the next year warning Congress that online communications would make it easier than ever for potential terrorists to self-radicalize in the United States, but that there was “no cohesive and comprehensive outreach and communications strategy in place to confront this threat.”
Nearly a decade after those warnings, we still don’t even have a name for the homegrown threat. Is it terrorism or “radical Islamic terrorism,” and what's the best way to prevent it? There remains no single agency in charge of stopping it, but local law enforcement agencies say they need more resources to combat the threat, and federal officials say they need more authority to fight it. And the attacks continue, one after another and another.
Lawmakers have called the Orlando shooting a sign of a “frightening new world.” But there’s nothing new about it. Mateen’s rampage Sunday morning was only the most recent time that a young Muslim in the United States has been inspired by violent Islamist ideology overseas and then executed a murder on American soil. It has happened in Ft. Hood, Texas, and Little Rock, Ark., at the Boston Marathon and in Chattanooga, Tenn., in San Bernardino, and now Orlando.
After every attack, Congress has quickly scheduled hearings, produced reports, introduced bills, and talked about “lessons learned.” But what has it really accomplished?
Gun control legislation is wildly controversial on the square mile of Capitol Hill, but most Americans have no idea why someone like Mateen, who had been on the terrorist watch list twice, can still legally buy an AR-15 assault weapon. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., both have bills to keep someone on the watch list from purchasing a gun. There has to be a compromise in there somewhere.
House Republicans say they have passed a hopper full of bills to address radicalization, but the bills are stuck in the Republican-controlled Senate. If they have Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s phone number, they should probably call him to talk about it. President Barack Obama has an entire military strategy to fight the Islamic State overseas to weaken and degrade it. Authorizing, funding, overseeing and informing those efforts is Congress’ right and responsibility.
Above and beyond the policy, one of the most unsettling elements of the Orlando attack is the reminder that no place is really safe — not a school, not a movie theater, not a military installation, and not a dance club in Orlando where a bunch of kids were just out having fun.
Americans want to know their Congress is doing something to make them safe. Trying and failing to get something done isn’t an option anymore. Please, Congress, do something.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy .