Why Is No One Talking About The Threat Of Far-Right Extremist Violence?

The phenomenon of terrorism arose in the late 19th century, and has been perpetrated by a variety of groups and individuals with a variety of motivations throughout the years.  Without a doubt, American consciousness of the issue was awakened by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 at 9:02am.  The act, commonly referred to as the Oklahoma City Bombing, killed 168 people, injured over 680 more, and was perpetrated by two domestic terrorists who were motivated by the FBI handling of the Waco siege in 1993.  However, the terrorist attack most seared into American memory is that of September 11, 2001, which killed 2,996 people and injured over 6,000 others, not including the thousands more who were injured and killed as a result of health complications sustained by working in and around Ground Zero.  According to the New York Times, the total financial cost of the attacks is reckoned to be $3.3 trillion, including $55 billion alone of physical damage, and a $123 billion economic impact.  Clearly the scope and scale of the terrorism on 9/11 surpassed any other terrorist event in American history, and continues to do so.  Its toll on the collective American consciousness cannot be overstated.  But perhaps as a result of this, we’ve developed a blind spot when it comes to terrorist threat assessment in America.  Why is no one talking about the threat of violence from the far-right extremist milieu?

The simple answer, of course, would be that far-right extremism poses less of a threat to the safety and security of the United States than the threat of radical Islamist extremism.  It would certainly seem that way given that public facing senior level officials in the government rarely, if ever, address it.  However, when one examines the numbers, disregarding 9/11 and the Oklahoma City Bombing given their (statistically speaking) outlier status, this is just not the case.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Research of Terrorism (START) recently released a numerical analysis of violent attacks by far-right extremists versus Islamist extremists from 1990 to 2017, and found that in America, far-right extremist violence has been responsible for more deaths than Islamist violence, not counting 9/11 and the Oklahoma City Bombing.  While Islamist violence is more deadly than far-right extremist violence (i.e. each incident kills more people, on average), far-right violence killed double the number of people during that 27 year time span than did Islamist violence.  In addition, according to START,

Targets of violence also vary across the two ideologies. For example, 63 percent of the Islamist extremism victims were targeted for no apparent reason. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often visiting symbolic locations or crowded venues such as the World Trade Center or military installations.  In contrast, 53 percent of victims killed by far-right extremists were targeted for their actual or perceived race or ethnicity. Far-right extremists, such as neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists, often target religious, racial and ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.

This means that violence perpetrated by far-right extremists is also more likely to be classified as a hate crime than violence perpetrated by Islamist extremists.  Far-right extremists are also more likely to specifically target police than Islamist extremists, according to the report, which indicates that far-right extremists have killed eight times the number of police officers that Islamists have, though Islamists have a history of targeting military personnel, whereas far-right extremists do not.  According to START, the likely reason for this is that, “Far-right extremists, who typically harbor anti-government sentiments, have a higher likelihood of escalating routine law enforcement contacts into fatal encounters.”

START is far from the only group running these types of analyses, however.  The Department of Homeland Security, working with the Department of Justice, funded the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) in 2006 to collect data on “ideological and non-ideological crimes, violent and non-violent (e.g., financial) crimes, terrorist and non-terrorist acts, crimes committed by groups and lone wolves, and cases prosecuted federally and under state-jurisdictions.”  More information about how the list is compiled can be found here.

In the face of all the data, it can be difficult to understand why far-right extremist violence isn’t a more widely talked about subject in the United States.  One possible explanation is that there is one and only one terrorist event that holds power in the American consciousness, and that is 9/11, which was perpetrated by Islamist extremists.  Though this is clearly very reasonable, given the extraordinary devastation of the attack, it has, perhaps, caused the aforementioned blindspot in American understanding of terrorism.  In the general public sphere, this explanation makes sense, but it doesn’t address why public-facing senior level policymakers still aren’t talking about the threat of far-right extremism, even given its threat level.  Just last night, President Trump spoke about the threat of terrorism in his speech to a joint session of Congress, but he made it clear that he was only talking about “Radical Islamic Terrorism;” there was no mention of the American radical right. Why?

The explanation likely lies in the fact that it is politically easier to target a foreign, external enemy, especially in light of an attack as devastating as 9/11, than it is to target an enemy that was born and bred here at home.  For better or worse, we do not want to see our fellow Americans as desiring of and capable of mass casualty attacks directed against other Americans, and this has created a dangerous blindspot when it comes to domestic terrorism, be it from the far-right extremist milieu, or other extremist milieus.  Unfortunately, if we want to truly neutralize the threat of extremist violence in this country, our policymakers are going to have to start addressing the uncomfortable truth: far-right extremist violence has caused more deaths in America than Islamist violence since the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Until we are honest with ourselves about the numbers and the facts, we cannot possibly expect to start solving the problems.

For more resources related to domestic violent extremist threats, check out the Featured Topics at the Homeland Security Digital Library, including: Domestic Terrorism and Extremism, Single Issue/Special Interest Domestic Terrorism and Extremism, Jihadist/Islamist Domestic Terrorism and Extremism, and Lone Wolf Terrorism.