The Partisan Exaggeration of Right-Wing Terrorism

Terrorist incidents in the West peaked in 2017, and have fallen dramatically since, mainly due to the defeat of the Islamic State. Yet the politics of fear demands a substitute: right-wing terrorism. “Right-wing” is stretched so broadly today that it conflates ethnic and religious identities, i.e., whites and Christians. Identity politics is fashionable but makes for terrible analysis.

In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with a rarefied left-wing news site (Quartz, then under the same ownership as The Atlantic magazine) to claim that two-thirds of American terrorism in 2017 was right-wing. Their “right-wing” categories were slippery, including “alt-light,” as a gateway to “alt-right.” Worse, they categorized both anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism as right-wing. Extremist Muslims and Jews hate each other. Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center put them together as right-wing allies. Such an equation prevents admission of the fact that anti-Semitism is the bigger problem, and largely jihadi. 

United States official data for 2019 shows that more than 60 percent of religious hate crimes are directed against Jews, while 13 percent are directed against Muslims (about the same as all Christians).

The Anti-Defamation League jumped on the bandwagon of fearmongering over “right-wing” terrorism, by launching its own study of American “extremist violence.” In January 2019, the ADL reported right-wing extremists as the “biggest threat” by the “numbers.” The report uses the term “white supremacist” interchangeably with “right-wing.” Here, critical race theory meets left-wing partisanship. 

But the ADL does not fully reveal its data or methods. By contrast, official statistics show that whites (72 percent of Americans) are underrepresented in hate crimes (52.5 percent of perpetrators of hate crimes in 2019 were white). And there is no upward trend in white perps.

Trends tend to get pushed behind unrepresentative events. In the deadliest attack of 2018, a white male shot 11 people to death at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was officially categorized as white supremacist (although all the victims were white). The ADL effectively treated that single event as evidence for a multi-year trend.

Definitions Matter

Even foreign events raise alarm about American trends.

In March 2019, an Australian (Brenton Tarrant) murdered 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. Tarrant left behind a manifesto, in which he identified primarily with Chinese Communism. He identified also with anti-imperialism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and anarchism. He specifically rejected Nazism, conservatism, Christianity, Donald Trump, and corporatism. The media, nevertheless, quickly deleted Tarrant’s manifesto while also misrepresenting it. The BBC described the manifesto as “right-wing,” without quoting from it. The Guardian newspaper described him as “neofascist” just because he targeted Muslims (which, at most, proves Islamophobia).

The Global Terrorism Index claims Tarrant as evidence that far-right political terrorism is “one of the more worrying trends.” The GTI is unaffiliated with the semi-official Global Terrorism Dataset, but uses its data. These data show that Jihadis were responsible for most of more than 13,000 terrorism deaths in 2019. The Global Terrorism Dataset itself categorizes a fraction of terrorism as either right- or left-wing. Most group motivations in the dataset are nonpartisan, such as “anti-Muslim” or “anti-police.” Further, for 2019, the dataset’s authors warned against reading too much into “diverse, sometimes complex, and often ambiguous ideological influences, typically without clear ties to formal, named organizations.”  

The dataset does not categorize Tarrant’s 51 murders as political. If the GTI had put them in the far-Left category, far-Left terrorist murders would have outnumbered the other 38 deaths it attributes to far-Right terrorism, and all other terrorism deaths (19), in the West. How does the GTI get to the other 38 far-right terrorism deaths? 

The answer is familiar. It conflates the dataset’s anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and white nationalist categories with right-wing categories. The GTI reports no definition of left-wing terrorism.

Second-hand reporting was even less careful. One Ph.D. student pretended to be reporting directly from the dataset itself that “most” “terrorist attacks . . . in the United States alone from 2015 to 2019 . . . were [perpetrated by] right-wing extremists, including white nationalists and other alt-right movement members.” In fact, there is no “alt-right” category in the dataset.

No right-wing or anti-Muslim terrorist murders occurred in 2019, although in August a white male killed 23 shoppers at Walmart in El Paso, Texas, allegedly in opposition to Hispanic immigration. 

Media Distortions

In September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security released a new strategy that prioritized white supremacists, to the delight of the media. Yet months went by without further white supremacist or right-wing terrorism. Indeed, the second deadliest terrorist attack of 2019 was by Black Hebrew Israelites (four murders in Jersey City), and the third was by an al-Qaeda offshoot (three murders at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida). Both attacks occurred in December 2019. No more terrorism occurred in America in the first four months of 2020.

During the first weekend of protests against the death of George Floyd in police custody, at least nine people were killed. About 28 were killed in BLM protests by the end of August. None was counted officially as extremist or a hate crime. A partisan think tank created its own dataset, in which many sources are written simply as “Twitter.” In September, it reported that Black Lives Matter protests are “overwhelmingly peaceful.” The media lapped it up.

In October, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with the ADL and others, claimed overwhelming right-wing terrorism in America during the first eight months of the year. CSIS counts five murders by terrorists inside America in that period. Of these, it attributes one to Antifa, at a Black Lives Matter protest. CSIS doesn’t explain why this was terrorism, while the other 26 or so murders at similar protests were not. (CSIS did not respond to emails asking for clarification.)

The CSIS typology is so chaotic and unreliable it takes some explaining. CSIS separates “ethnonationalist” terrorism, but places “racial or ethnic supremacy” under “far-right.” How is “ethnonationalism” different from “racial or ethnic supremacy”? The report’s explanation is weak: ethnonationalism “often include[s] struggles of self-determination and separatism along ethnic or nationalist lines.” Often? This means that sometimes it doesn’t. So, what would ethnonationalism look like when not separatist? CSIS doesn’t say.

CSIS makes clear that “far-right” doesn’t include all “racial or ethnic supremacy,” only white supremacists. CSIS places black supremacists under “far-left terrorism.” So now we know that CSIS distributes racial or ethnic terrorism across at least three categories: ethnonationalism; far-right; far-left. And by separating white and black ethnonationalism, the category that CSIS refers to as “ethnonationalism” ends up with no cases at all!

Similarly, CSIS categorizes “religious” terrorism separately from “far-right,” but places Christian terrorism under far-right. The only religion CSIS places under “religious” terrorism is jihadism. This seems partisan. In a majority Christian country, one would expect more Christian than Jihadi extremism. Nevertheless, Christian terrorism is underrepresented, and Jihadi terrorism is overrepresented (relative to religious adherents in the American population). Counting deaths rather than incidents, jihadi terrorism is even more overrepresented. Placing Christian under “far-right” is always going to underreport religious terrorism and overstate far-right terrorism in America.

Politicized Reporting

The federal government did not help to counter the partisan narrative. The Department of Homeland Security got around to publishing its annual threat assessment in October, when it was “still evaluating” data for 2020. It warned that white supremacism was unusually lethal in 2019, but warned also that Jihadi terrorism will resurge within years.

In the whole of 2020, the only officially categorized terrorist attack within the homeland was the murder of two police officers by two men linked with the “Boogaloo” movement.

Yet the reporting in 2021 has returned to overreach. The usual suspects are at the center of it. In April, the Washington Post started a new website, using data from CSIS, to claim that “domestic terrorism incidents have soared to new highs in the United States, driven chiefly by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim, and anti-government extremists on the far right.” Note the usual careless conflations and misleading framing.

This year, the Biden Administration has characterized the invasion of the Capitol building in January as “white supremacist,” which warrants troops on the streets. The administration simultaneously warned of “white supremacist” infiltration of the military to compel a purge, and to request congressional funding for further investigations. In neither case has the administration publicized any evidence, although the media remains deeply persuaded by clothing, hearsay, and social media posts, as well as quotes from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Democratic Senators in March reintroduced a bill to establish executive offices to focus on domestic terrorism. Sounds laudable, except that their justification is “the continued rise in horrific incidents of domestic terrorism and hate crimes targeting religious and ethnic minorities and communities of color, as well as the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) justifies the bill with the exhortation “to be abundantly clear that white supremacists and other far-right extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today.”

At the end of April, Biden gave his first speech as president to a joint session of Congress. He declared “the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: white supremacism is terrorism.” He proceeded to conflate this with the death of George Floyd, although the policeman charged and convicted in the case was not charged with anything racial.

Yes, white supremacism exists. But a greater threat to American democracy is the misrepresentation of terrorism for partisan power. 

About Bruce Oliver Newsome

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D., is a lecturer in international relations at the University of San Diego.

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

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