|Number 579||July 2, 2015|
The production of Nygaard Notes involves looking at a lot of websites. (A LOT of websites!) Most of them you don't want to hear about. But every now and then I run across a little-known website that I think Nygaard Notes readers would really enjoy, or that add information—or perspectives on information—that are important and hard to find. If I think they're good enough, I publish a little blurb called "Website of the Week." I haven't done it for a while, but this issue has a couple of very important ones. Check 'em out.
There's a lot of important news about climate, so that will probably be the focus of the next Notes. Although, as long-time readers know, what actually appears in the Notes is often as much of a surprise to me as it is to you!
"It is important to use the term 'terrorism' when we see it in order to be consistent. Terrorism is already used without hesitation for many non-white – especially Muslim – actors who carry out violence consistent with the definition outlined above. Few media sources use the term for violent actors motivated by, for example, white supremacy or anti-government rage. To avoid the term becoming simply an insult, or worse a racist insult, it should be used whenever the basic criteria apply, or not at all."
That's terrorism expert Brian J. Phillips, writing in a Washington Post blog of June 19, in an article headlined "Was What Happened in Charleston Terrorism?" His answer, by the way, was "Yes ... the massacre in Charleston, S.C. [on June 17th] was clearly a terrorist act."
The political scientist Bernard Cohen wrote in 1963 that "The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about."
And sometimes it's successful at both. Since 9/11, USAmericans who rely on media for their knowledge of the larger world—and that's virtually all of us, like it or not—have been told to think about terrorism. And what are we supposed to think? That it's a huge threat to our safety, and that the threat comes primarily from something called radical Islam.
Two recent pieces in the New York Times offer some facts that (were the media doing its job) should have long ago called into question some of our most widely-held ideas about terrorism.
The first one was a June 16 opinion piece in the New York Times entitled "The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat." The authors, sociologist Charles Kurzman and Duke University Terrorism scholar David Schanzer, note that "If you keep up with the news, you know that a small but steady stream of American Muslims, radicalized by overseas extremists, are engaging in violence here in the United States. But headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists."
A slight digression: The distinction between "Muslim extremists" and "right-wing extremists" is not obvious. What mental image comes to mind when you think of "Muslim extremists"? When you think of "right-wing extremists," is your mental image different? Why might that be?
The authors continue: "Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.
"In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012."
Repeat: So-called "Islamist terror" = 20 plots, 50 fatalities. Right-wing terror = 337 plots, 254 fatalities.
Even if you add up all the plots, it's important to keep things in perspective, since "terrorism of all forms has accounted for a tiny proportion of violence in America. There have been more than 215,000 murders in the United States since 9/11. For every person killed by Muslim extremists, there have been 4,300 homicides from other threats." Having said that, fifty people per year are killed by lightning strikes each year in the United States, and three people have been struck by lightning just this week in Minnesota, so it's important to be appropriately cautious, even in the face of smaller-scale threats.
I can't say it better than Kurzman and Schanzer put it in their concluding paragraph:
"Public debates on terrorism focus intensely on Muslims. But this focus does not square with the low number of plots in the United States by Muslims, and it does a disservice to a minority group that suffers from increasingly hostile public opinion. As state and local police agencies remind us, right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America."
Put simply, terrorism is an attack on an individual or individuals carried out with the intent of putting a large number of others into a state of chronic fear. In this sense, the specific victims of a terrorist act are, almost by definition, innocent of anything except for their membership in the targeted group (or the belief that they somehow symbolize that group).
Furthermore, the "Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism (2011)" reminds us that "Acts of terrorism rarely stand alone but form part of a campaign of violence which alone can, due to the serial character of acts of violence and threats of more to come, create a pervasive climate of fear that enables the terrorists to manipulate the political process."
In light of these definitions (there are many), the recent murder of black people by a white gunman in Charleston was clearly an act of terrorism. This act occurs in the context of, and is a part of, a "campaign of violence" against people of color in this country that goes back literally hundreds of years. But all of us apparently do not know this.
For example, I suspect that few people know the following fact, which I take from the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC: "Since 2000, the number of hate groups [in the U.S.] has increased by 30 percent. 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."
This is the context in which the recent shootings in Charleston South Carolina must be understood. And for those who have been paying attention to the realities reported by this week's two Websites of the Week, the growing threat of right-wing violence is well-known, and far overshadows the threat posed by "radicalized" Muslims and the so-called "jihadist threat" (That term is from a recent Wall Street Journal headline: "The Homegrown Jihadist Threat Grows.")
It comes as a surprise to many people that we face less of a threat from Muslim fanatics than we do from what might be called "All American" terror – that is, terror perpetrated by people who come from the great majority in this country who are white and not Muslim. How do we know it surprises people? The New York Times tells us so.
Surprise! Right-Wing Terror Worse Than So-Called "Jihadists"
Eight days after the New York Times published their opinion piece on "The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat" (the subject of the article you just read), they decided to run—on the front page—an article headlined "Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11." The piece more or less repeated, with a bit more detail, the points made earlier on the opinion page, but a few unconsciously self-referential comments are worth noting. I'll add highlights in the following examples, so you'll see what I mean.
In the first example, the Times reported comments on the phenomenon of "extremists" who have carried out lethal assaults in the U.S. These extremists are known for "explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants," says the Times, "But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise."
What comes as a "surprise" to the Times is that "nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims" since 9/11. That's according to "a count by New America, a Washington research center."
The Times remarks that "If such numbers are new to the public, they are familiar to police officers," citing a national survey of police and sheriff's departments to support the claim.
Deep into the article we read that "Some killings by non-Muslims that most experts would categorize as terrorism have drawn only fleeting news media coverage, never jelling in the public memory. But to revisit some of the episodes is to wonder why." Mention is then made of the 2012 rampage in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin—by a white neo-Nazi—in which six people were murdered and three seriously wounded. And of the 2014 Las Vegas pizza parlor killings of two cops by a white married couple with radical antigovernment views, who left behind on the cops' bodies "a swastika, a flag inscribed with the slogan 'Don't tread on me' and a note saying, 'This is the start of the revolution.'"
John G. Horgan, who studies terrorism at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, notes that "we seem to have forgotten ... that extremist violence comes in all shapes and sizes. And very often, it comes from someplace you're least suspecting."
Consider those examples: "the extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise." "Such numbers are new to the public" and "have drawn only fleeting news media coverage, never jelling in the public memory." And an expert who tells us that "extremist violence often comes from someplace you're least suspecting."
Where does this ignorance come from? Why does such important information not "jel" in the "public memory"? Who is it that "least suspects" white non-Muslims of committing terrorist acts? Why are these numbers "new to the public"?
We're reading these comments in the mass media—the most influential mass media in the nation, in fact—yet virtually all of the mis-information about terrorism that resides in people's heads comes from the mass media. How many of us, after all, have read books or studied the works of terror experts, sociologists, or criminologists in an effort to understand the nature of the important threats that face us? No, what most of us know comes from TV, from newspapers, or from the Internet sources that rely, for the most part, on newspaper journalism.
The reason the quotations in this Times article are self-referential, and the reason I consider them noteworthy, is that they reveal that the reporter for the Times knows these facts. Yet he admits that readers of his paper will find these facts "surprising." So one would think that a big part of the story here is the Times' own failure to educate it's highly-motivated, well-educated readers as to what is going on in regard to domestic terrorism. And Times readers are not alone in their ignorance.
I don't blame the Times, really. I don't think their readers WANT to know what's going on. And in the world of supply and demand, the lack of demand for truth-telling results in a lack of supply. We need a media that supplies the information we need, not what the market wants.
It's been a few years since I last ran my occasional feature "Website of the Week." It's probably even more useful now than it ever was, given the enormous number of websites in the world. How can anyone trust that a website is a good one? We can talk to each other, that's how! So here are a couple of websites that have to do with the subject of this issue of Nygaard Notes, which is "What is the greatest terrorist threat, anyway?"
Website #1: SPLC
Started in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center grew out of the Civil Rights movement, and was founded specifically in response to the organized hate groups that aimed to terrorize people of color, both in the South and in the North. Here's what their website says: "The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States and exposes their activities to law enforcement agencies, the media and the public. We publish our investigative findings online, on our Hatewatch blog, and in the Intelligence Report, our award-winning quarterly journal." I particularly recommend that you subscribe to The Intelligence Report. And check out their website page called "Hate and Extremism" for some basic information about what we are dealing with—or not dealing with—when it comes to domestic terror.
Website #2: PRA
The 34-year-old social justice think tank Political Research Associates "holds a unique position in studying the entire spectrum of the U.S. Right—secular, religious, economic, and xenophobic—including its influence both domestically and overseas." They specifically say that they exist to "support social justice advocates and defend human rights."
PRA is solidly embedded in the reality-based community, and they're particularly good at analyzing the rhetoric, propaganda, and ideology that provides the fuel for racist and right-wing violence and terror. Relevant to this issue of the Notes, they have this to say: "While threats to human and civil rights may come from any direction, the most robust opposition over the past few decades has emerged from the U.S. Right, which routinely employs harmful scapegoating and clever slogans that oversimplify complex policy issues. PRA counters with reliable analysis, looking beneath the sound-bites to expose the true agendas of right-wing leaders, institutions, and ideologies."
PRA also has a great magazine called The Public Eye to which you may want to subscribe.