Ask any of us who works in national security what to do about ISIS, and we’d have no problem pitching you ideas. Even if we lack expertise in the topic or don’t work directly on it, we’d still have opinions and thoughts, because we’ve been swimming in a sea of articles, op-eds, books, hearings, programs, and overall research and debate for years. But ask us about right-wing extremism, a violent ideology that’s killed more Americans than ISIS in the last decade, and most of us would pause — either because we were unaware of the problem or, worse, we were afraid to speak openly about it.
So let’s talk about it now.
Over the last decade, individuals and groups fueled by this virulent ideology have committed 71 percent of the known politically or religiously inspired killings in our country — that is, 274 of the 387 Americans murdered by extremists. Reports now indicate it was part of the recent murder of 17 school children and teachers in Florida, just as it was part of mass shootings that have happened everywhere from California to Charleston. It has not just hit inside the US, but has struck many of our closest allies, both causing near-tragedies and horrible massacres. It is not a new threat; it has killed hundreds of Americans in past decades. But it is growing in power and influence, worrisomely being stoked by foreign nations like Russia that wish our nation harm. It is a clear, present, and proven danger to the United States. Yet we find it awkward to talk about.
There are many reasons why we have a hard time acknowledging the deadly threat from the cluster of groups that gather inside our country under the hateful flags of white nationalism, white supremacy, anti-government militia, and Neo-Nazism. One reason is to avoid appearing too partisan, a desire to be even-handed. There is irony in that we seek to avoid appearing biased, even when the threat espouses bias to the point of justifying hating and even killing their fellow Americans. So, after each episode of right-wing violence, we avoid talking about it, even to the point of reaching in the opposite direction. For instance, after these groups united to march on Charlottesville, culminating in the killing of a young woman, major U.S. papers ran more op-eds condemning the counter-protesters, who have yet to commit a mass killing, than those who committed the crime.
I must pause here to pre-empt the inevitable “what-aboutism” — the kind of attempts to change the conversation that wouldn’t happen in an article on a group like ISIS. Yes, far-left violence is bad. (See how easy it is to write that? There’s no need to caveat violent extremists of any flag as “very fine people.”) But over the last decade, 3 percent of extremist killings in the U.S. have been committed by members of far left-wing groups — a fraction of the 71 percent by right-wing extremists and 26 percent by Islamic extremists. Those figures are the ADL’s, which documents them case by case. If you don’t like the ADL’s categorization, you could use the data gathered by colleagues of mine at the New America Foundation, which drew on the statements of law enforcement officials to determine motivation in the various attacks. That dataset shows that attacks by right-wing extremists outnumber those by left-wing groups more than 17 to one. Or you could use the one compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which since the rise of the “alt-right” in 2014, has documented 43 people killed and more than 60 injured by young men whose social media use evinced a similar ideology — and often a “lone-wolf” style familiar from other forms of terrorism. And this was before Parkland. In short, from a standpoint of scale, trends, and impact, we have a problem that shouldn’t require what-aboutism or ignoring the bulk of the problem. Nor is the “alt-left,” or “violent left,” a viable political movement. Certainly, it has not bled into the broader mainstream of party politics and key media outlets, nor held multiple armed standoffs after seizing government facilities, nor even paralyzed entire American cities in fear.
We also have to admit that we are quiet about right-wing extremist violence out of calculation. The cost-vs.-gain equations that shape our choices are simply different from other topics. Compare the professional benefits to the potential risks of publishing an article, creating a college course, writing a book or dissertation, organizing a conference, hosting a speech, creating a university or thinktank project, funding a foundation program, etc., on right-wing extremism. It is not just that there is no great profit in it. It is that every one of these endeavors would be far more difficult, and would likely create far more headaches for us and our bosses, than a similar project on pretty much any other topic in our field.
This isn’t to say there aren’t fantastic researchers on this topic; there are many, who have valuably shaped much of what we know about the issue. But we in the rest of the field must acknowledge that they’ve chosen a more professionally risky path than most of us, even though the very object of their study has killed more Americans over the last few years than essentially any other problem we are working on.
The same problem plagues government. For an elected official, or, worse, a U.S. government employee, to speak about this threat carries proven political and professional risks; doing so has literally cost people their jobs. And that was before we had the first president in the modern era to express sympathy for and be celebrated by these groups.
The result is that far-right extremism mirrors that of Islamic extremism in its forms, spread, and goals. The head of counter-terrorism policing in the U.K., which broke up four planned far-right terrorist attacks in just the last year, says both groups “create intolerance, exploit grievances, and generate distrust of state institutions.” But the politics of doing something about these two dangers are directly opposite. In America, it is politically savvy to talk strongly and repeatedly about terrorism and extremism, except the version of it that has killed the largest number of our fellow citizens over the last decade.
Finally, we avoid talking about right-wing extremism because to do so invites personal risks and annoyances that, generally speaking, don’t much afflict other areas of security studies. These range from online harassment (via social networks that have become a breeding ground for it) to physical stalking and violence.
I don’t have all the answers about what to do about the plague of violence fueled by right-wing hate groups. But I do know we’ll never find them as long as those of us interested in national security downplay and avoid it. It is long past time to start talking about a threat that is regularly killing our fellow citizens.