The recent massacre in Charleston has sparked heated and important discussions about the threat of right-wing, anti-government domestic terrorism — a threat often overshadowed by media coverage of Islamic terrorism, both at home and abroad.
White supremacy and various anti-government views contributing to acts of violence is by no means a new phenomenon.
Relatively recent events such as the Oklahoma city bombing, Joseph Stack flying his plane into an IRS office in Texas, the murder of two Las Vegas police officers along with a bystander by neo-Nazi, Tea Party fanatics, and, of course, the Charleston shooting by racist Dylann Roof, among many, many others tell us that our discussions of terrorism are, more often than not, woefully incomplete.
This, observes Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept, is largely a consequence of the operative definition of terrorism within mainstream political discourse: Namely, acts of violence committed by people of color, in particular by people ideologically driven by Islamic fundamentalism.
The selective application of the label “terrorism” to describe acts of violence motivated by political or religious extremism has made it merely a “meaningless propaganda term.”
The refusal of FBI director James Comey to label Roof’s actions “terrorism” further illustrates the point.
Pair these facts with the data showing that Muslim violence in the United States elicits a ton of media coverage — despite the fact that Muslim violence is less common within the US than violence committed by white supremacists and anti-government fanatics — and you have a pretty clear picture of a media that is trying to paint a narrative that doesn’t quite match reality.
Here’s The New York Times covering a recent study by New America:
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.
(Some counts, as noted by Jim Naureckas of Common Dreams, are even higher. “More comprehensive studies cited in a recent New York Times op-ed–6/16/15–show an even greater gap, with 254 killed in far-right violence since 9/11, according to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, compared to 50 killed in jihadist-related terrorism.”)
The consequences of the resulting distorted perception are dire.
Not only are the media not focusing as intently on white supremacist, neo-Nazi, right wing anti-government terrorists as is warranted, but the government is slashing groups who work on this kind of terrorism specifically.
Here’s Daryl Johnson, a former counter-terrorism analyst, in an interview with Democracy Now!.
Johnson describes his role in studying the rise of right-wing and white supremacist violence in response to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and then he details what happened to him and others who worked on the same issues:
Basically that we were seeing a resurgence. We had experienced, very early on—right after the election, we saw arson activity at black churches. We had a bombing out in the Pacific Northwest, where some police officers were killed that were carried out by anti-government extremists. We had a neo-Nazi up in Massachusetts that went on a shooting spree. And we saw a lot of extremist chatter talking about how they were fearful of an African-American president and possible gun confiscations and gun bans, and the immigration issue was still being unresolved…
And, what happened to Johnson and others after they noted their findings in a report:
Well, what happened was quite shocking, actually. I never anticipated that, you know, the Department of Homeland Security, my employer, would actually clamp down on the unit and stop all of the valuable work we were doing. Leading up to this report…my team was doing a lot of good things throughout the country.
We received numerous accolades from law enforcement, intelligence officials, talking about the great work we were doing in the fight against domestic terrorism. And then, in lieu of the political backlash, the department decided to not only stop all of our work, stop all of the training and briefings that we were scheduled to give, but they also disbanded the unit, reassigned us to other areas within the office, and then made life increasingly difficult for us. Not only did they stop the work that we were doing, but they also tried to blame us for some of the attacks that were occurring.
Johnson, in a recent piece for The New York Times, describes the consequences of all of the above — including the media’s over-presentation of Muslim terror and the coinciding under-presentation of white supremacist, anti-government terror.
Domestic terrorism is the national security threat whose name we dare not speak.
The numbers of both extremists and the radical movements that spur them to violence are soaring, and coalescing, in alarming ways. Yet through reckless neglect at nearly all levels of government, domestic terrorism not tied to Islam has become a cancer with no diagnosis or plan to address it. The latest deaths, in Charleston, join the growing number of victims who have perished in a wave of domestic terrorism that has plagued the Obama administration.
The most terrifying fact observed by Johnson is the government’s seemingly willful ignorance with regard to how serious the non-Islamist terrorist threat is within the United States.
In September 2012, I called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal government agencies, to reassign more agents and analysts to monitor and assess domestic terrorist threats.
Today, there are still literally hundreds of analysts throughout the U.S. government looking for Islamic terrorist threats, including from Al Qaeda and its affiliates, yet, there are mere dozens of federal government analysts looking at domestic non-Islamic extremists. This disparity needs to be rectified.
America must reignite the determination to fight domestic non-Islamic terrorism that it demonstrated in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Implementation of these objectives is a good start to eradicating the threat. It would honor the victims and let them (and their family members) know that their deaths were not in vain.
The bottom line is that much of the media and the government are very quick, when violence is committed by Muslims, to draw a seamless connection between beliefs and action.
But, when a white male and his wife who were clearly driven by Tea Party fanaticism murder three people, including two police officers, and yet another white male, who was clearly driven by ideas promoted by white supremacist groups, murders nine black people in an historically black church, the hesitance to draw the connection between his beliefs and his actions is far more pronounced.
How much different would the coverage of and response to Roof’s actions have been had he been wearing an Islamic State flag on his jacket, instead of the flags of Rhodesia and South Africa?
The countrywide mourning of the victims has been both inspiring and devastating — I feel the latter emotion because I don’t know how much more it’s going to take for the United States to enact meaningful changes with regard to how racist violence and violence driven by various anti-government ideologies are treated in this country, along with meaningful steps to prevent this kind of violence in the future.
Had Roof been a Muslim, there is little doubt that government response would have been swift and policies proposing ways to lessen the threat would be incoming from all directions.
As Daryl Johnson notes, the “reckless neglect” by the government of certain kinds of terrorism is leading directly to the loss of lives, and innocent people will continue to die unless this course of action is corrected, and quickly.