With the benefit of hindsight, the timing of the piece was extraordinary. Last Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed from UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, on the “growing right-wing terror threat.”
The piece explained, “In a survey we conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum last year of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with Al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations. And only 3 percent identified the threat from Muslim extremists as severe, compared with 7 percent for anti-government and other forms of extremism.”
Just two days later, a white supremacist massacred nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston. For many, it was an act of terror – a politically motivated radical, seeking a race war, murdered Americans, though his apparent target was far broader and more encompassing.
Far too often, when Americans think of terrorism, we think of the Middle East, al Qaeda, and ISIS militants. There’s ample evidence, however, that suggests these assumptions are wrong and overdue for a re-examination. The New York Times reports today, for example, that the statistical breakdown on the ideologies behind U.S. terrorist attacks “may come as a surprise.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.The slaying of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church last week, with an avowed white supremacist charged with their murders, was a particularly savage case. But it is only the latest in a string of lethal attacks by people espousing racial hatred, hostility to government and theories such as those of the “sovereign citizen” movement, which denies the legitimacy of most statutory law. The assaults have taken the lives of police officers, members of racial or religious minorities and random civilians.
The piece pointed to data that showed seven lethal attacks by Islamic militants since 9/11, while there have been 19 such attacks by non-Muslim extremists.
University of Massachusetts Lowell scholar John Horgan told the Times, “There’s an acceptance now of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown. And there’s a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated.”
All of this brings to mind the developments from early 2009, when congressional Republicans and conservative media claimed to be outraged by a Department of Homeland Security document, alerting law enforcement to potential threats from ideological extremists and their interest in politically motivated violence.
As we discussed a while back, the report had been commissioned by the Bush/Cheney administration, but Republicans freaked out anyway – conservatives decided that concerns about violent radicals may implicate more mainstream activists on the right. Some GOP members of Congress even called for then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s resignation.
The Republican tantrum was bizarre, but it nevertheless convinced federal officials to scale back their scrutiny, at least for a while, of home-grown extremists and potentially violent fringe radicals.
Given what we now know, it would seem a more responsible course is in order.