Right Wing Extremists More Deadly than Al Qaeda in the US

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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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. As you pointed out humans are awful at assessing risk, especially when what we are being trained to fear is on the lower end of the risk scale.

    When parents are more concerned about their children being abducted then they are about the much more statistically deadly swimming pool in the back yard is it any wonder that terrorism (that we are constantly told to fear) would hold our attention over something as seemingly harmless as driving to the supermarket (even though dying in a car crash during that short drive is about a thousand times as likely as dying in a terrorist attack).

    Other things that are more likely to kill you then terrorism? Coal-fired power plants, crumbling infrastructure, drunk driving, lack of access to health care, homelessness, the police, and the list goes on and on and on.

    But those things are harder to address with results then making people take off their shoes at the airport simply because those “safety measures” at the airport are addressing a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

    Truth is, terrorism is less likely to kill you than just about anything but it wouldn’t do those who wish to make you believe they are protecting you any good to let you know that.

    It reminds me of the old joke; A man tries to sell a woman elephant repellent, when she points out that there aren’t any elephant within a thousand miles he smile and says, “see how well it works?”

      1. There’s nothing at all ironic about quoting a right wing extremist to comment on a post about right wing extremism …

        Almost as ironic as considering the US as the only theatre in the current war on extremism.

        1. My point, which criticaldragon missed, was that some white supremacists are getting quite comfy with radical Islam, turning the question of whether right-wing terrorists or radical Muslims commit more murders into a false dichotomy.

          1. Jon Brewer,

            Sorry I didn’t realize that. You’re right. I didn’t understand what you were getting at. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

  2. Rebecca Watson,

    Great Video!

    In addition to down playing the severe danger of right wing extremism, its also going to help right wing extremists demonize Muslims and anyone who happens to “look” Muslim.

  3. Roof and Major Hassan are comparable: rage shootings driven by hatred without a clear chain of command, but with an ideological back-story that ensures that they will find sympathizers on one hand. And rationalizers who’ll write off their agendas as ‘mental illness’ on the other.

    Roof seemed to think he was going to precipitate some Big Event, the race war of all the skinhead fantasies—and Manson’s too. Did Hassan believe he was going to have some similar downstream effect? Probably not.

    So is it ‘terrorism’ because it has a background of motivation and support? Or because it has some sort of apocalyptic goal?

    The Germans in WWI had a policy called ‘schrecklichkeit’ which used to be rendered in English as ‘frightfulness.’ Shelling undefended towns, mass shootings of hostages, deliberately encouraged individual crime by soldiers etc. etc. Of course the better translation would have been ‘terrorism.’ That is to say the use of criminal or military force to intimidate or control a population.

    Rage killings, while practically an American sport, don’t always qualify for THAT definition. Mob killings of Black Americans are textbook examples, the Tsarnaevs bombing in Boston too. For some of these, the edges get slippery. I don’t think we can toss one term to avoid ‘othering’ without being a little evasive.

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