In the last several days, three events dramatically underscore a hard truth about domestic terrorism: nearly all of it originates with the extremist right wing.
This provocative idea is borne out by stubborn facts, but the question is why this so, and why the national discourse about terrorism remains stuck on the wrong threats.
The three events are the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the fiery destruction of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, and the reopening of a mosque that had been burned down by terrorist arson in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The good news story of the reopening of the Tennessee mosque is marred by the ceaseless efforts to keep it from opening by right-wing opponents, including Republicans running for Congress in the district, many of whom insisted that Islam is not a religion and is not protected by the Constitution.
As I wrote in the Boston Globe 17 months ago, the overwhelming numbers of acts of politically motivated violence in this country are committed by the right wing. If I may quote myself at length:
"The START database on terrorism in America, which tracks all incidents of political violence, shows that most attacks in the last two decades have been on black churches, reproductive rights facilities, government offices, and individual minorities. And those have been committed mainly by right-wing extremists. From 1990 to 2009, START identified 275 "homicide events'' that killed 520 people and were committed by right-wing ideologues. There were many more incidents of destruction of property, nonfatal attacks, and other acts of thuggery by white supremacists, private militias, and the like."
Compare that to the threat that so much of the news media and political class focuses on: Muslims. The think tank RAND found that "46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism occurred in the United States'' since 9/11, and that "most of the would-be jihadists were individuals who recruited themselves.'' Most of the "threats" were never realized, and many of them were absurd fantasies.
The question is, why has the right wing -- so long associated with law enforcement -- become so tolerant of terrorism against minority religious groups, gays, abortion clinics and others they abhor? Why is the right wing the incubator of so much violence?
A lot of old-fashioned xenophobia is at work, of course. New immigrants typically have been embraced by liberals and scorned by conservative nativists. One only needed to hear the diatribes against illegal immigrants by Mitt Romney and his other GOP hopefuls through the Republican primaries -- and the full-throated approval of those diatribes by the listening crowds -- to understand how deep this runs on the right. Right-wing bloggers like Michelle Malkin feed the frenzy or ignore right-wing terror, and Fox News has aggressively used the Muslim terror threat as a standard trope of its commentary for 11 years.
The rest of the news media has been too sanguine about calling a spade a spade, too timid about calling out this epidemic of hate. Even in the recent shootings, as Riddhi Shah points out in a Huffington Post blog post, the news media attention to the Aurora, Colorado murders was way more prominent than the coverage of the Sikh temple massacre. Similarly, when Rep. Peter King (R-NY) held hearings on supposed radicalization of American Muslims last year, very few analysts in the news media pointed out the vastly greater prevalence of right-wing terror in America.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has done yeoman's work on tracking violent groups, notes that "Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others. And their numbers are growing." The Center's data show that hate groups have increased by 69 percent in the last decade. And the so-called "Patriot" groups have increased nearly 800 percent since Obama became president.Their closely observed conclusion for this startling increase:
"This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation's ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation's first African-American president"
If the news media and political leaders were told there were a thousand violence-prone Muslim groups operating in the United States, can you imagine the reaction? Yet, apart from the glancing attention given incidents like the Sikh temple massacre, the national discourse about terrorism focuses almost exclusively on Muslims.
Scholars call this "framing" -- the predisposition of the news media (and others) to see events in a certain way, using a cognitive frame that then leads to certain perceptions and conclusions. The cognitive frame for understanding domestic political violence in this country is the Muslim threat, reinforced powerfully by the 9/11 attacks, of course, even though that atrocity was not committed by domestic terrorists. (The biggest act of domestically organized violence is the Oklahoma City bombing, a right-wing endeavor.) The "Muslim threat" meme has so overwhelmed the discussion of political violence, however, that the actual topography of terrorist groups in this country is neglected.
Watch carefully the next time an act of political violence is committed against, say, an African-American church or Planned Parenthood or a mosque. You won't hear many condemnations from Sean Hannity or Eric Cantor or indeed Mitt Romney. The burning of the Joplin mosque, which is the second attack this summer on that house of worship, earned no rebuke from the establishment right, including Romney. But then, Missouri is a swing state.
Follow John Tirman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JohnTirman