A new Washington Post “analysis” of domestic terrorism argues that attacks from white supremacists and other “far-right attackers” have been on the rise since Barack Obama’s presidency, and “surged since President [Donald] Trump took office.” It’s a familiar storyline meant to assure liberals that, yes, Trump-motivated right-wing terrorists are running wild. There are, however, a few problems with this proposition.
For one thing, even if we accept the numbers the Post offers, the use of the word “surge” — meaning a sudden, powerful forward or upward movement — strains credibility. There’s no evidence of a “surge” either in historical context or as a matter of ideological preference. But even if we’re okay with replacing “uptick” with the word “surge,” a cynic might note that the Post’s reporters seem to filibuster their own findings to push preconceived partisan notions about the state of the nation.
That is to say, we have good reason not to accept the numbers. According to The Washington Post, which relies on Global Terrorism Database (GTD) data, there were allegedly zero — not one — acts of right-wing terrorism in the entire nation in the year 2002. Since then we have seen a “surge” to 36 in a nation of 325-plus million people by 2017. Among those acts, there were 11 fatalities.
Or, in other words, fewer homicides were committed by political terrorists of any stripe in the United States in 2017 than were committed by illegal immigrants in the state of Texas alone — which I am assured is an incredibly low number that shouldn’t worry us very much. If one of these is scaremongering, why not the other?
Then again, even if we use the criteria offered by GTD, we need to be exceptionally generous to even get to 36 incidents of right-wing violence in 2017 (I could only find 32).
For example, although the Post acknowledges that the Las Vegas shooter’s motivations are still unknown, the CTD had no problem categorizing the murderer of 59 people as an “anti-government extremist.” And it takes these sorts of assumptions to get in the vicinity of a “surge” in right-wing terrorism.
Of the 32 incidents I was able to find, 12 featured perpetrators who were merely “suspected” of being right-wing terrorists. Some of these incidents could have been the work of one person, as in the pellet-gun shootings of Muslims in New York. In other incidents, we are asked to treat patently insane people as if they have coherent political agendas. In still others, the attacks could easily have non-terroristic motivating factors.
Still other events are even more opaque. In San Juan, Puerto Rico — apparently a hotbed of white supremacy — an incendiary device was thrown into a gay night club. No one was injured, thankfully. Also, no one was caught and no one claimed responsibility for the act. The episode doesn’t even earn a “suspected” designation from GTD. And the Washington Post almost surely added this to its right-wing terror stats.
If the definition of domestic terrorism is muddy at best, the definition of “right-wing” terrorism is often arbitrary and self-serving. To help bolster right-wing terrorist stats, for instance, we would have to perfunctorily include every anti-Semitic act. The Washington Post even mentions an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study showing “a 57 percent surge in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.”
If anything, the ADL study is the kind of cautionary document demonstrating how difficult it is, not only to quantify these incidents, but to categorize them ideologically. The ADL’s faulty data was self-reported, and most of the “surge” can be attributed to a single Jewish teen in Israel calling in a number of bomb threats to Jewish centers.
In the real world, a Jewish American is probably more likely to encounter anti-Semitism at a college campus or progressive march in the guise of “anti-Zionism” than he is anywhere else, because Jew hatred is non-partisan.
Then there is the matter of inconsistently defining terrorism. If throwing a rock through the window of an Islamic center is an act of right-wing terrorism, why isn’t it an act of left-wing terrorism for anti-capitalists to throw rocks through the window of a business in Portland? Surely both fall under the description of terror, which is “the threatened or actual use of violence by nonstate actors seeking to attain political, economic, religious or social goals through fear or intimidation.” As far as I can tell, only one of these genres makes the cut at GTD.
Even if we were to accept the numbers, The Post decided to bury the lede. According to their own data, there were more fatalities due to domestic Islamist terrorism than to all other types combined over the past three years. In 2017, there were 16 fatalities due to Islamic extremism. Fatalities from Islamic terrorism in 2016 — which includes 49 killed in a gay Orlando nightclub by an ISIS-inspired jihadi — and 2015 were higher than all alleged right-wing terror attacks. There’s just as strong a case to be made that there has been a “surge” in Islamic terrorism in the United States since Donald Trump ran for president.
Then again, none of the three authors of the article take the time to mention a single one of those Islamic attacks. So while we learn that Trump is being blamed for a pipe bomb being thrown “yards” away from an Islamic enter by the “White Rabbit 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia,” we read nothing about the man who pledged his allegiance to ISIS before killing eight people on the West Side Highway in Manhattan.
This is what happens when reporters work backwards from a predetermined premise.
You’ll notice, as well, that these analyses typically begin in 2002, since the 2,996 Americans murdered in 2001 is inconvenient to the white-supremacy-is-more-dangerous-than-radical-Islam narrative. The reason we don’t have a real-life “surge” of Islamist attacks since 2001, incidentally, is that the United States has spent billions yearly to stop it.
Political violence isn’t the monopoly of any one group. Although there have been flare-ups of leftist violence in the 1900s and late 1960s-1970s—and other domestic acts of terror before and since—for the most part this kind of violence is still rare. That could change. And none of this is to say horrible events aren’t happening. Nor is it to say that haters don’t exist. But exaggerating the problem for political reasons doesn’t help anyone. Covering your partisan work with a bogus veneer of scientific analysis doesn’t make it any more useful.