According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as “jihadists” have since 9/11. However, the same database shows that Muslims constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terrorism charges or killed when confronted by authorities. Despite being responsible for only 35 percent of the terrorism casualties, they account for 60 percent of terrorism indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that right-wing extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.
Shortly after President Barack Obama’s election — particularly after a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on the threat of right-wing extremism — Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents, such as those affiliated with the tea party.
In order to help defuse this narrative, national security agencies were tightly restricted in how they may monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The Department of Homeland Security was stripped down to the point that it has one analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terrorist activity — and the organization no longer collects any statistics on right-wing extremists.
There was no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues at the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism.
Consider Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of the Echelon Complex in Austin, Texas. His manifesto clearly identifies his antipathy for the federal government as motivating his attack — particularly his grievances with the Internal Revenue Service, whose offices he struck. The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass casualty event as a catalyst for political change, which is almost verbatim the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of terrorism. And yet the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such, and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks.
Given this nonresponse from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating tea-party-affiliated groups on its own. When its probe became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama administration’s using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, the FBI has opened a criminal probe against the IRS rather than investigate right-wing terrorism.
Politically, it is nearly impossible to target these groups, because of the protection they receive from Republican lawmakers and lobbyists. And disparities in media coveragehave tended to minimize the threat from right-wing terrorists (at times even presenting a sympathetic view of them) while greatly exaggerating the threat from Islamic extremists, removing ethnic nationalists and separatists from public scrutiny as well.
Right-wing extremists are thus given ample breathing room to spread their ideology and to plan and carry out their attacks, which helps explain both the higher relative lethality of right-wing attacks and the significantly lower rate of indictment for their perpetrators. Hate groups and separatists have been arming themselves and forming militias (PDF) over the last decade, some with the express purpose of waging war against the government or minorities. Their methods are growing more brazen and extreme. Their ideologies are becoming progressively more pervasive, and they are increasingly collaborating and communicating with analogous white nationalists movements around the world — reinforcing their beliefs and heightening the perceived stakes of their struggle.
It would be an error, however, to swap out hysteria about “jihadists” for panic about right-wing extremists, because the threat of terrorism in general is dramatically overstated.
The overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks cause few, if any, deaths. According to the New America Foundation’s data set, the most killed in any post-9/11 domestic terrorism incident has been 13; most attacks had two or fewer victims.
Since 9/11, 74 Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists. In that period, nearly seven times as many people have died as a result of being struck by lightning — a freak accident par excellence. The number killed by terrorists is minuscule compared with other homicides: 537 Americans have been killed by police so far in 2015, or more than seven times the number killed by terrorism in the last 14 years. And roughly 6,000 Americans were killed by Mexican drug cartels and cartel-fueled drug violence in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010.
In 2013 more than 100,000 Americans perished in vehicular and other accidents. Meanwhile, chronic health conditions, medical errors and malpractice cause more than 1 million U.S. deaths every year. Given the scale of these disparities, even a successful large-scale attack would do little to change the relative lethality of terrorism.
Politicians frequently assert that their most sacred duty is protecting American lives and well-being. If so, policymakers should be investing their time and resources into environmental protection, shoring up infrastructure and public safety or increasing the quality of and access to health care (includinge psychiatric and social services) rather than obsessing over terrorists. Not only are the threats posed by these challenges far more grave; they are also more tractable.
But it’s not just about death tolls. The biggest threat right-wing groups pose is not to the security of Western nations but to their character. To the extent these ideologues can leverage their growing popularity to influence policymakers and social narratives, they pose an existential threat to fundamental political values such as pluralism, tolerance and equality, which form the basis of liberal democracy.
It is, of course, impossible to rid the world of extremism. However, it is entirely possible to reduce and largely contain the domestic threat posed by extremists of all stripes. Rectifying the imbalance in attention will require, as a first step, that right-leaning legislators, pundits and intellectuals take a clear stand against separatists and ethnic nationalists for the benefit of all rather than pander to ideologues for narrow political gain.
Since 9/11, the United States has devised a number of tools to help detect and disrupt terrorism plots and extremist organizations. Many of these resources, such as the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance programs and other Patriot Act provisions, came at great cost to our values, rights and freedoms. If we, as a society, have determined that we are willing to tolerate these sacrifices in the name of security, we should at least render these resources effective by pursuing all terrorist groups, perhaps especially right-wing cells. They currently pose a far greater threat than “jihadists” in large part because they are not being sufficiently challenged — by law enforcement or by our political culture.