What Does ABC’s “Designated Survivor” have in common with the Anti-Defamation League’s recent report on right-wing terror groups? Answer: both go to extreme lengths to minimize the threat of Islamist violence and magnify what the ADL calls “right-wing terrorism.”
Last May, as DS wrapped up its first season, ADL issued a new report on right-wing terrorism. Entitled “A Dark & Constant Rage,” the report explores the danger these extremists have posed since 1993. The result makes a compelling case that extremist ideologues are a grave threat to the American public. In focusing attention on this danger, the ADL has performed a valuable public service.
Yet the report goes off the rails in its tendentious comparison of the danger posed by “right-wingers”—comprising adherents of several distinct ideologies, including white supremacist, anti-government, anti-abortion, and anti-Muslim extremists—to that posed by “radical Islamic terror,” and assertion that right-wing extremists pose an “equally serious threat of terror” compared to “homegrown” Islamist terror.
Watch Out for Those Limited-Government Types
DS offers a similar vision of how many people in America today view threats of political violence from right-wing and Islamist extremists. The show’s main character, Tom Kirkman, succeeds from Housing and Urban Development secretary to the presidency after the U.S. government is decapitated by an attack on the capitol.
As Kirkman begins assembling a new government, the nation’s intelligence apparatus fingers an Arab terrorist group for the attack. Kirkman naturally feels pressure to retaliate, but resists until receiving proof in a taped admission by the group’s leader. He fires the new chairman of the joint-chiefs-of-staff for insubordinately ordering a retaliatory strike before Kirkman had authorized it.
It gets worse for the military. Eventually, Kirkman learns the Arab terrorist had nothing to do with the attack besides being paid to take the fall. The real conspirators are right-wingers led by former military personnel. They will stop at nothing to put one of their own in the White House.
Michigan’s National Guard defies Kirkman’s federalization order, insisting his presidency is illegitimate. The show repeatedly depicts the police negatively, whereas American Muslims are portrayed only as innocent victims. In Washington, police stop Kirkman’s Muslim speechwriter on the street and question him, apparently for the crime of looking Muslim. In Michigan, the governor orders police to arbitrarily detain Muslims for questioning, without warrants, and assault them without provocation, even beating a 17-year old to death. And the FBI wants to arrest a reporter about to reveal details of a sensitive investigation and compel him to reveal his sources.
In other words, the world of “Designated Survivor” is one in which:
- Right-wing nuts, especially what ADL calls anti-government extremists, pose the greatest danger to the United States.
- The military and military-industrial complex are crazed and bloodthirsty opponents of peace, liable at best to ignore and at worst to rebel against the legal government.
- Police are ready to junk the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
- Focus on Islamist violence is wrongheaded and obscures more serious threats (see above).
Christian Right Depicted as Crazies Also
DS is not unique in espousing views like these. The second-season opener of Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing” postulated an assassination attempt by white supremacists. Its third season (2001-02), broadcast in the wake of 9/11, incorporated a plotline about Islamist violence, but the subject was nearly forgotten the next season. The fourth season concluded with the kidnapping of the president’s daughter.
Most of the show’s characters, and therefore viewers, presumed Islamists were responsible, but Sorkin later said that had he not left the show at that point, the kidnapping would likely have been attributed to Christian Rapturist fanatics. Just as DS characters assumed Islamists committed the crime only to discover the real criminals were right-wing extremists, the same would have occurred in “West Wing’s” fifth season opener, had Sorkin remained.
Nor have these views been limited to television. Back in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report emphasizing dangers posed by domestic right-wing terrorists. In particular, the report argued that right-wing groups would try to recruit disgruntled veterans, who thereby posed a threat. Unsurprisingly, many veterans’ groups were offended.
At the same time, the prior administration worked hard to eliminate phrases like “Islamic extremists,” “radical Islamic terrorism,” and “jihadi terrorism” from public discourse, as by having then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan refuse to say them, and eliminating their like from FBI training manuals.
Have Right-Wingers Killed More than Islamists Have?
In 2015, the New America Foundation (NAF) released a study claiming right-wing extremism had killed more Americans than Islamist attacks since 9/11. The study, and broad media coverage of it (e.g., in Time magazine, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsweek) implied that popular concern about Islamist violence was overblown, because “The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists.”
The widespread coverage belied ADL’s complaint that “Far more attention in recent years has been given to the threat of homegrown radical Islamic terror” rather than “right-wing” extremism. Yet NAF used some sleight-of-hand to beef up its claim, such as excluding 17 murders caused by Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
NAF discontinued its chart in fall 2016, after its own figures showed Islamists had killed substantially more Americans than had right-wingers. The original link redirects to an undated item, “Terrorism in America After 9/11,” which incorporates a chart graphing fatalities from what it calls jihadi and right-wing violence—currently listed as 95 and 68, respectively.
According to the ADL, “Right-wing extremists have killed 255 people” in the 25 years between 1993 and 2017. Of those, 168 were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, leaving another 87 killed during that time period.
In the same time period, Islamist violence has caused at least 3,078 deaths, including six in the first World Trade Center bombing, 2,977 on 9/11, and the 95 post-9/11 casualties NAF recognizes. In other words, deaths by all right-wing extremist categories amounted to only 8 percent of the number of deaths by Islamists in the past 25 years. That percentage barely changes when including the death this year in Charlottesville at the hands of a neo-Nazi, included in the 95 versus 68 count on the website.
The report tries to finesse this problem by artfully referring to “homegrown” Islamist terror, rather than “Islamist terror” in general. That qualification apparently allows it to ignore the 2,977 casualties from 9/11 and the six from the first WTC bombing. This arbitrary division is deceptive. When considering which ideology is more dangerous to people in the United States, does it really matter that the thousands who died in the World Trade Center’s North and South towers and at the Pentagon were victims of a plot hatched outside the country and carried out by foreign nationals living in the United States? They were victims of Islamist terror, whether homegrown or not; and law enforcement resources are properly detailed to prevent this problem.
Even if the first WTC and 9/11 victims are excluded, Islamists murdered at least 95 people post-9/11. During that same time period, ADL has identified 60 victims murdered by right-wing extremists since 9/11; NAF claims 68. The data still do not support ADL’s insistence that right-wing violence is “equally” serious.
The Left Versus Right Trope Implies Islamists Are Leftist
It’s also unclear why ADL, New America, and others insist on lumping together a diverse group of ideologies, labeling them all as “right-wing,” and juxtaposing them against radical Islam. One could certainly argue that Islamism is itself a type of fascism, advancing what Sen. Lindsey Graham calls a master religion rather than a master race. Why not accept that all extremist ideologies pose a danger, and combat them accordingly? That does not mean any effort to combat the danger must focus on all ideologies simultaneously: the government must triage them, focusing its resources on effectively combatting the most serious threats.
DS’s portrayal of a world in which right-wing violence is much more severe than Islamist violence, and even the ADL’s argument that right-wing violence poses an “equally serious threat of terror” compared to “homegrown radical Islamic terror,” are both sadly misguided faults in what are otherwise enjoyable entertainment and a valuable contribution to knowledge of extremism, respectively.
Overall, and despite a too-intricate plot and a weak season-ender, “Designated Survivor” is well-made and very entertaining. Still, it’s a shame the show seems so determined to blacken the reputations of the military, police, and National Guard, while downplaying the very real threat of Islamist violence.
The ADL report does not go to such extreme lengths. It recognizes that radical Islam poses a danger, but unjustifiably minimizes it, seeing it only as competition for government resources and media attention it would rather see devoted to “right-wing terrorism.” The world of “Designated Survivor” isn’t like the real world, and neither is the world of the ADL report, but it’s what Hollywood and many others think the real world is like. Hopefully, neither will prevent audiences from properly triaging and combatting violence from whatever quarter.