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New America, an organization in Washington, DC, has just released a study showing that extreme right wing terrorists have launched more attacks in the United States since September 11 than Islamic terrorists. And by “released a study” I mean they counted the attacks and said, “Hey, look.”
The problem with any comparison like this is in the definitions, and the organization admits that what is or isn’t “extremism” is subjective. For this dataset, they only included Islamic terrorism that was carried out by or inspired by Al Qaeda, and not attacks by other groups like Hezbollah for instance. As far as I can tell, though, that doesn’t really leave many. Hezbollah only has one attack in that time frame, the 2008 bombing of a US embassy vehicle that left 3 people dead, though that was in Beirut and no Americans died. And then there’s Hamas, who have talked about attacking the US but never actually followed through.
A much harder job is quantifying what qualifies as right wing terrorism. They only included attacks in which they could verify that an ideology was a central motivation, but there are a lot of attacks that fall into a grey area as we work to understand what’s happening in the mind of a killer. For instance, they included the recent mass murder of 9 people in Charleston at the hands of an avowed white supremacist, for instance, but they did not include the atheist in Chapel Hill who gunned down three Muslim students. They included the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in 2009, but they didn’t include Elliot Rodger’s killing spree last year, which he stated was motivated by his hatred of women.
So if anything, in my opinion, they erred on the side of caution. But still they found that right-wing extremists were responsible for almost twice as many deaths in the US as Al Qaeda.
With that in mind, why are we still spending billions of dollars fighting wars overseas, while spending even more here in the US on measures that just end up inconveniencing us at best or violating our rights at worst? Looking at you, NSA.
The reason is that we’re human, and humans are terrible at evaluating risks. Here are a few of the factors that cloud our judgment and make us think they’re more dangerous to us than they are: a spectacular, well-publicized event, like planes crashing into a building; a situation that’s seemingly not within our control, like attackers who come from another country; a phenomenon that we’re not familiar with, like extremism from a religion we know nothing about; and identifying with the victims, like thousands of people just going to work one morning.
And part of the reason is the fact that “terrorism” is an attention-catching word, and it’s not one often applied by news outlets to right-wing mass murderers.
Masha Gessen is the author of a book about the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, and she had an interesting point to make about this. She suggested that while what he did was an act of terrorism, we shouldn’t label Dylann Roof a terrorist – not because his crimes aren’t comparable to those of others we call terrorists, but because the word itself is a way to disassociate from and dehumanize the perpetrators so that we will never really understand why they did what they did.
I think she’s right, but unfortunately we can’t address that problem by pointedly not labeling Roof’s actions as “terrorism” while the entire world continues to consider every Islamic act of hate “terrorism.” As New America has shown, that will only continue to play down the actual threat of right-wing violence.