America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 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 diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly 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—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for 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 down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!


Double Standards

Politically, it is nearly impossible to target these groups as a result of the protection they receive from Republican lawmakers and lobbyists. Simultaneously, disparities in media coverage have tended to minimize the threat from right-wing terrorists (at times even presenting a sympathetic view of them) while greatly exaggerating that of Islamic extremists — thereby removing ethnic nationalists and separatists from public scrutiny as well.

Consider the case of Robert Doggart, a Christian minister and failed Congressional candidate, who recently plead guilty of plotting to “utterly destroy” a predominantly-Muslim suburb in upstate New York through a campaign which included bombing a mosque and a school, and then carrying out a shooting rampage. He had been in contact with militia groups and convinced nine others to join him in his crusade; he had acquired automatic weapons with which to carry out his plan.

Muslims intercepted in imminent plots, despite being typically entrapped to begin with, are generally sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Doggart was sentenced to home detention, lost his gun permit, and was fined $30,000. After protests led by Muslim activists and rights groups, he is now facing additional civil rights violation charges as well—but he will still get off far more easily than a Muslim accused of a similar plot, and it is unclear whether his co-conspirators were charged with anything at all. Per usual with far-right extremism, the media had little to say on the story (the reader may not have even heard of it until now).

As a result of these sorts of double-standards, right-wing extremists are given ample breathing room to spread their ideology, and to plan and carry out their attacks — which explains both the higher relative lethality of right-wing groups and their significantly lower rate of indictment:

More-or-less unopposed, hate groups and separatists have been arming themselves and forming militias over the last decade, some with the express purpose of waging war against the government and/or minorities. Their methods are growing more brazen and extreme. Their ideology is 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.


Misplaced Priorities

Still, it would be an error to swap out hysteria about Islamic jihadists for panic about right-wing extremists, because the threat of terrorism in general is dramatically overstated.

The overwhelming majority of all terror attacks cause few, if any, deaths. According to the New America Foundation’s dataset, the highest number killed in any post 9/11 domestic terror incident has been 13; most attacks had two or fewer victims.

All said, 74 Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists since 9/11. In that same 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 miniscule when compared to other homicides: 537 Americans have been killed by police so far in 2015—more than 7 times the number killed by terrorism in the last 14 years.

Roughly 6,000 Americans were killed by Mexican drug cartels and cartel-fueled drug violence in America from 2006-10.

Four times as many Americans died from suicide in 2013 alone than died in 9/11, all subsequent terror attacks in the New America Foundation database, and the entire combined campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That same year, more than 100,000 Americans perished in vehicular and other accidents. Meanwhile, chronic health conditions, medical errors and malpractice cause more than a million U.S. deaths every single 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 wellbeing. 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, healthcare (to include 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.


Containing the Threat

Of course, it is important to remain vigilant against potential “black swan” attacks which cause massive casualties, spectacular destruction, and widespread socio-economic disruption—but ultimately the most significant threat right-wing groups pose is not to the security of Western nations, but to their character. To the extent these ideologues are not only largely above the law themselves, but can actually leverage their growing popularity to influence policymakers and social narratives, they pose an existential threat to values like pluralism, tolerance and equality — which form the basis of liberal democracy and international rules and norms, to include human rights law.

But what is to be done about it?

It is, of course, impossible to rid the world of extremism. Attempts to realize utopian goals such as these generally end in even greater repression and tragedy. The “War on Terror,” for instance, has caused the deaths of more than a million people across the world, overwhelmingly civilians, in an attempt to address a crisis which was never severe to begin with—a threat which was, itself, largely the product of previous interventions abroad.  That said, it is entirely possible to achieve the more modest goal of reducing and largely containing the domestic threat posed by extremists:

Since 9/11 the United States has formulated a number of tools to help detect and disrupt both terror plots and extremist organizations. Many of these resources, such as the National Security Agency Bulk Surveillance programs and other PATRIOT Act provisions, are illegal, immoral, and ineffective—realized at great cost to our values, rights and freedoms. But 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 tools more effective by pursuing all terror groups, allocating law enforcement resources in proportion to the threat posed–with little concern as to whether a group is “foreign” or “domestic,” “Islamic” or “right-wing.”

Moreover, far-right militants pose a far greater threat than jihadists in large part because they are not being sufficiently challenged — neither by law enforcement nor in the background culture. As a first step to rectifying this imbalance, right-aligned legislators, pundits and intellectuals must take a clear stand against separatists and ethnic nationalists for the benefit of all, rather than pandering to ideologues for narrow political gain.

But in addition to being more broadly vigilant and proactive, we must also be more resilient. The allergic overreaction we have to terrorism and other mass atrocities is precisely what gives extremists their power. The single most effective way one can undermine terrorists is to refuse to play their game.


Published 7/10/2015 by Al-Jazeera America
Translated into Croation and syndicated 7/14/2015 by Al-Jazeera Balkans.


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