BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Nearly 200 seats were filled for a town hall meeting Aug. 20 at the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center, in Bridgewater, where Rep. Tom Malinowski, D–7, addressed topics including antisemitism, domestic terrorism and gun control.
“Thank you for being here and I wish we didn’t have to be here,” he said. “If I could sum it up in one sentence that would be it.”
Malinowski shared domestic hate crime statistics from the Anti-Defamation League, citing that, since 2008, three-quarters of all domestic terrorist acts resulting in deaths were carried out by individuals with a white supremacist neo-Nazi ideology. Within the last two years, he said, that statistic has increased to 100 percent.
Fear and hatred of immigrants is a common theme of domestic acts of terror, regardless of the targeted group, Malinowski said. The phrase “invasion” referring to immigration appears in verbal statements and written manifestos of individuals who have carried out hate crimes, he said, adding that this language has also been used in recent Donald Trump re-election Facebook ads.
“I don’t think that is a responsible thing to do,” Malinowski said. “We have to be very careful about that language. We’re absolutely free to agree or disagree about immigration policy, that is a perfectly legitimate debate. But we should not be demonizing people, we should not be fueling the sense that immigrants are invaders because there are people in our society that take that language literally.”
Malinowski said he would like to see domestic acts of terrorism addressed with the same degree of seriousness that is applied to international terrorism.
“Virtually every Isis- and Al Qaeda-inspired attack in the United States is stopped before it happens,” he said. “We need to get better at dealing with the domestic groups.”
A bill requiring universal background checks for anyone purchasing a weapon has been passed by the House of Representatives and is now before the U.S. Senate, Malinowski said.
“We’re back on Sept. 9, this is going to be a huge issue,” he said.
In addition, Malinowski said, the judiciary committee is working to restore an assault weapons ban that was in place between 1994 and 2004.
Malinowski said he would like law enforcement to have more tools to be able to prevent domestic acts of terror before they are carried out. He said that, currently, there is not a criminal offense for domestic terrorism, and individuals who carry out mass shootings can only be charged with murder.
Similarly, Malinowski said, domestic groups cannot currently be classified as terrorist groups. An individual who donates money to an international terrorist group can be arrested, while donating to a domestic group with similar ideals is an expression of free speech, he said.
Malinowski added that a balance would be necessary in determining whether to classify domestic groups or crimes as terrorist, to prevent an abuse of power.
One audience member asked if he has a sense of where the line should be drawn in these actions.
Malinowski suggested safeguards, including specific criteria for defining a terrorist group and also requiring that a federal court review the evidence and make the determination instead of leaving this decision up to the executive branch alone.
Malinowski said he would encourage his constituents to share their opinions and thoughts on this issue, which he believes requires much careful consideration.
A member of the audience stated that New Jersey is one of the few states that has a Holocaust education mandate, but that it is not followed by all schools. She asked Malinowski if he supports the Never Again Education Act.
Malinowski said he is a co-sponsor of the bill and believes that continuing education about the Holocaust is essential.
“We have to know that it’s possible in order to prevent it,” he said.
Bridgewater resident Stacey Friedlander, organizer of the town hall meeting, shared a text message from her 11-year-old son, Jack, who has noticed bullet-proof backpacks being advertised among back to school supplies.
“It’s horrible that this anxiety even has to exist,” Malinowski said. “Security is more than just about being secure, it’s about feeling secure.”
Malinowski offered reassurance, saying that local schools are overwhelmingly safe places. New Jersey has excellent gun control laws he said, and one of the lowest rates of gun violence of any state in the country.
Malinowski continued to answer questions and speak to participants one-on-one after the public forum, and concluded the evening with a tour of the Holocaust Museum on the main level of the JCC.