The antifa movement has had a free ride in American public opinion since its hooligans first came to public notice in the riots at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the hysteria faded, as hysteria always will. Several Lee statues have been taken down and peace still is missing in the world. The public has had second thoughts about who actually were the fascists at Charlottesville.
Now the FBI has opened an investigation, not into the movement itself, but into the activities of “a number of” people animated “by a kind of antifa ideology,” Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, told Congress last week.
The investigation looks to having been opened with care and due diligence to protect the First Amendment rights of the hooligans, as it should. “We do have a very active domestic terrorism program,” Mr. Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee. “While we’re not investigating antifa as antifa — that’s an ideology and we don’t investigate ideologies — we are investigating a number of properly predicated subjects of people who are motivated to commit criminal activity on kind of antifa ideology.”
That’s a long way around the short end to say that acts, no matter how nobly or ignobly inspired, have consequences, and bad consequences can be punished.
The hooligans of antifa showed up in Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest the monument to the famous Confederate commander, seeking its removal from a public park, obviously spoiling for a fight, and got one.
President Trump, perhaps without meaning to, contributed to the tension in Charlottesville with a perfectly reasonable observation that there was a tendency for violence on both sides, antifa against defenders of the Lee statue. The incident focused on attempts by antifa to prevent speeches by several speakers ranging from Milo Yiannopoulos of the so-called alt-right to conventional conservative Ben Shapiro. Antifa hooligans have since been cited as organizing provocations against speakers with whom they disagree.
Antifa has been responsible for clashes on campuses and in the streets across the United States, leading to property damage, arrests and injuries. The hooligans typically try to cloak the incidents under the Constitution, disguising violent protest — similar to shouting fire! in a crowded theater — as free speech and the free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The crucial distinction of what the FBI can investigate and what it can’t is necessary because of how it has monitored more than a thousand incidents provoked by domestic groups, including antifa. The FBI can’t open an investigation into domestic terror unless certain conditions have first been met. “There has to be credible evidence of federal crime, [and] threat of force or violence to further a political or social goal,” Mr. Wray told Congress. “And if we have all of those three things, then we open a very aggressive investigation.” This is bad news for antifa’s hooligans, and it’s good news for the rest of us.
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