When Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) labeled cattle rancher and right-wing extremist Cliven Bundy a “domestic terrorist,” the far Right went into an apoplectic state. But the Senate majority leader may have unwittingly stumbled upon an interesting and sobering fact: that when it comes to domestic terrorism, you are far more likely to be murdered by a far Right-wing American than a Muslim American, but the term “terrorist” remains reserved exclusively for acts of political violence carried out by Muslims.
If terrorism is defined as violence against innocent civilians designed to advance a political cause, then all racist murders that occur in the U.S. are also acts of terrorism, because the perpetrators commit the violent act to send a political message to minority communities (i.e. intimidate them into a subordinate status.)
Arun Kundani, adjunct professor at New York University and author of The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror, writes: “The definition of terrorism is never applied consistently, because to do so would mean the condemnatory power of the term would have to be applied to our violence as much as theirs, thereby defeating the word’s usefulness.”
Violence carried out by far Right groups or individuals, which have racism as a central component of their ideology, is of similar magnitude to that of Jihadist violence. In the years 1990 to 2010, there were 145 acts of political violence committed by the American far Right, resulting in 348 deaths. By comparison, 20 Americans were killed over the same period in acts of political violence carried out by Muslim-American civilians.
“Both categories of violence represent threats to democratic values from fellow citizens. Whereas the former uses violence to foment a change in the ethnic makeup of Western countries or to defend racial supremacy, the latter uses violence to try to intimidate Western governments into changing foreign policies. Ultimately, to be more concerned about one domestic threat of violence rather than the other implies governments and mainstream journalists consider foreign policies more sacrosanct than the security of minority citizens,” writes Kundani.
It has now been 13 years since al Qaeda and its associated forces have carried out a successful attack inside the United States. National security analyst and regular CNN contributor Peter Bergen asks, “Given this, it becomes harder to explain, in terms of American national security, why violence by homegrown right-wing extremists receives substantially less attention than does violence by homegrown jihadist militants?”
To that point, right-wing extremists have carried out a great number of high profile acts of political violence since 9/11, from the shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, to the murders at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Attacks that have garnered fewer headlines include the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, who ran an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas. His killer was tied to a number of far right-wing groups, including Sovereign Citizens, a neo-confederate movement who deny the powers of the federal government.
In a recent op-ed, Bergen juxtaposes the media and national security attention devoted to the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing to last month’s shootings at a Jewish Community Center in greater Kansas City. On the latter, Frazier Glenn Cross, who founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party, shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather, and one other. After being taken into custody, Cross shouted, “Heil Hitler.” In both respective attacks in Kansas and Boston, three Americans were killed.
“Now let’s do the thought experiment in which instead of shouting “Heil Hitler” after he was arrested, the suspect had shouted “Allah Akbar.” Only two days before the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, this simple switch of words would surely have greatly increased the extent and type of coverage the incident received,” observes Bergen.
John Mueller, who is a political scientist in the field of international relations, illustrates how our conception of the terrorist threat is shaped more by ideology than objectivity: “In almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.”
Despite the far Right’s history of deadly violence, it is jihadist violence that continues to dominate media headlines and the attention of policy makers. The Southern Poverty Law Center calculates there are 939 far right-wing hate groups across the country today, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, border vigilantes and others.
“Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 56 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president…. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 – rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012. The number fell to 1,096 in 2013,” the SPLC calculates.
Yet terrorism and racist violence are not considered to be equally significant threats by the U.S. government and the mainstream media. “When CNN’s John King commented that the person arrested for the Boston attack had been identified as a ‘dark-skinned man,’ it was not just an individual gaffe, but the making explicit of the racial subtext to the entire discourse of counterterrorism. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews asked his terrorism expert guests whether government analysts would be able to tell from the surveillance images of the suspects if they were ‘from Yemen or other parts like that.’ The suspect’s face was being asked to reveal a racial identity that would, in turn, tell us whether he was one of ‘them’ or one of ‘us,’ and therefore what kind of emotional response to the bombing would be appropriate,” writes Kundani.
Dangerously, not only is the mainstream media shy in labeling right wing extremist groups as “domestic terrorists,” but also so is the government. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report warning of violent right-wing extremism. The report had merely pointed out that some domestic extremists focused on single issues like immigration and abortion were interested in recruiting military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative columnists cried blue bloody murder, and in the face of political controversy, the report was retracted.
In a 2011 interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Daryl Johnson, the leader of the team that produced the report, argued that following the controversy, the Department of Homeland Security’s examination of such threats suffered, stating: “Since our report was leaked, DHS has not released a single report of its own on this topic. Not anything dealing with non-Islamic domestic extremism—whether it’s anti-abortion extremists, white supremacists, ‘sovereign citizens,’ eco-terrorists, the whole gamut.”
Like the violent acts we normally think of as terrorism, racist violence not only takes the lives of its immediate victims, but also sends a larger message of fear to the wider population. “In dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terrorist violence that is largely imagined, the U.S. government has neglected the challenge of creating a genuinely peaceful society. An ideologically-driven focus on Muslim Americans as the prime threat of violence goes hand in hand with a normalization of the fact that the in the U.S., 15,000 people are murdered each year,” writes Kundani.
The growth in far Right extremism is fueled not only by a right-wing echo chamber that legitimizes false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities, but also, in part, by liberal timidity, which is why Sen. Reid’s use of the term “domestic terrorist” is an important step forward in dealing with the threat of far Right extremism. I mean, terrorism.