By Khaled Diab
Despite all the hype, white supremacists and anti-government extremists are the main homegrown terror threat in the United States.
Thursday 21 January 2016
Armed men stormed a federal complex in the United States. A bearded spokesman announced publicly their intention “to kill or be killed”.
Despite the mounting fear of homegrown terrorism, rightwing politicians, the media and the general public exhibited remarkable restraint. Even the firebrand Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been curiously silent on the matter, agreeing, when pushed, that the gunmen had to “stand down” in order to “maintain law and order”.
This is a far cry from Trump’s shrill demands for a ban on Muslims entering America following the deadly shooting in late 2015 in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead and 22 wounded.
But unlike in San Bernadino, the armed men holed up at a wildlife reserve in Oregon are not suspected jihadist terrorists. Instead, these men are a self-declared militia which claims to be fighting for the rights of local ranchers.
This may explain the reluctance of Trump and other Republicans to use the “terrorist” label, though one wonders whether they would have shown such restraint had the Oregon gunmen been native Americans, blacks or Muslims.
However, others are not so coy. After years of fixating on Islamist terrorism, American security experts and officials are waking up to the threat posed by domestic far-right and anti-government extremists.
“The men, heavily armed…are – by any definition – domestic terrorists,” insisted Juliette Kayyem, CNN’s national security analyst and a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, in a column.
The group’s broader aim of using this armed standoff to help “overthrow the county and federal government”, according to the local sheriff, adds credence to the “terrorism” label.
Many Americans, especially Republicans, will find this classification objectionable, taking at face value the militia’s claim of being “peaceful” and “armed with the Constitution”. Although the extremists in Oregon have not (yet) hurt anyone, plenty of other have.
A troubling new report by the Anti-Defamation League, the sometimes-controversial civil rights group, paints a grim picture, identifying 2015 as the deadliest year for domestic extremists for two decades.
The ADL report tallies a minimum of 52 people killed by extremists in 2015. Contrary to popular perceptions that Islamists are the main perpetrators of terrorism on US soil, the majority of the death toll, a whopping 63%, was caused by white supremacists, anti-government militants and anti-abortion extremists.
Given that the US population is nearly 319 million, this remains a minute fraction. However, this is an extremely conservative estimate. “This number is bound to grow further still, as extremist connections to some murders often take years to be revealed,” the ADL admitted in a statement, “and there are likely still other murders whose extremist connections may never see the light of day.”
Who knows how many of the mass shootings in the United States – which have averaged more than one a day for the past three years or more – were motivated by as-yet undetermined extremist ideology or committed by unidentified extremists?
For example, the ADL report does not include, according to the Washington Post, the murder of three Muslims near the University of Carolina because it was not entirely clear whether the perpetrator’s anti-Muslim views played a direct role in the killings.
This points to another factor which may understate the threat from non-Islamist domestic extremists: the reluctance by society, the media and authorities to attach the “terrorism” label to mass shootings carried out by white Americans – preferring, instead, to focus on possible mental health issues.
For instance, take Adam Lanza, who, at the end of 2012, mowed down 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as six adult staff members and his mother. Lanza expressed anarchist views so extreme that he believed human civilisation was beyond redemption and the “only way that it’s ever sustained is by indoctrinating each new child for years on end”.
Should we chalk up his murderous actions to his ideology and hatred of society, or to mental health issues, even though the Asperger syndrome he had been diagnosed with does not make sufferers prone to violence and specialists who had assessed him while he was alive did not identify a tendency to violent acts?
Regardless of whether we count this and other incidents as “extremist” or “terrorist” acts, the death toll is only the “tip of a pyramid” of extremist violence and crime, in the words of the ADL, because it does not include the wounded, the intimidated and the foiled plots.
And this is what makes far-right and anti-government extremism more dangerous than Islamism, which is dangerous in Muslim societies, in the American context – the indigenous networks via which these brands of hate and demonisation can be spread and amplified.
For instance, though few far-right politicians and activists openly call for violence, their discourse legitimises it, at least to some extent. They may not pull the triggers, but they offer violent extremists a loaded rhetorical gun.
This does not mean that Americans should demonise domestic extremists the way Islamists are but they should strive to understand what drives some of them to violent action, and why this is on the rise.
Social and economic marginalisation seem to be major factors. In today’s America, economic insecurity, job flight, diminishing prospects, especially for the young, has moved from the working class to squeeze the middle class in its cold embrace – while the 1% thrive, the 99% struggle to survive, leading to alienation.
Though Obama’s commendable efforts to tighten gun control will help ensure that fewer angry people can express their rage in a rain of bullets, he also needs to tackle the underlying causes of that anger.
This article first appeared in The National on 11 January 2015.