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The debate isn’t new. It’s been percolating for decades. It resurfaces whenever an attack occurs without an obvious perpetrator, and again when a new report attempts to analyze the threats.
Conservatives erupted in April 2009 over a Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism, begun under the Bush administration, that cited rising threats following the economic downturn and election of a black president. Under pressure, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano finally withdrew the report and reassigned all but one of her domestic terrorism investigators.
In July 2012, House Republicans hammered Napolitano over a training program that examined right-wing threats alongside Muslim extremism. One congressman, Paul Broun of Georgia, complained that security officers were being taught to look for “gun-owner, Christian-conservative, pro-life” types. “That’s me,” Broun said. “How are you going to prevent me from being identified as a terrorist?”
In 2010, liberals protested a House committee hearing on extremism among American Muslims, saying it unfairly tarred an entire faith. Dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have been accused since 2001 of profiling Muslims and spying on mosques. Publicly, police said they weren’t spying. Privately, they said that’s how they catch terrorists.
The numbers suggest that both sides are correct. Available statistics are wildly conflicting, depending on who’s counting and what’s included, but it appears that since 2001, jihadist-inspired American Muslim terrorists have carried out between five and 10 attacks, killing either 17 or 33 people. (The higher numbers include killers who spouted vague Islamist ideology, notably the so-called Beltway Sniper who killed 11 people in 2002.)
In all, between 150 and 172 jihadist terror suspects have been arrested. Significantly, about 45 other attacks were foiled in that period. Some interdictions resulted from intelligence work, others from Muslim community cooperation. That spotlights a dilemma in domestic espionage: It saves some lives, but threatens others by undermining community trust.
In the same period, right-wing domestic terrorists were responsible for at least 16 lethal attacks resulting in 40 deaths. They include white supremacist, anti-government and anti-abortion extremists. Non-lethal incidents include at least nine bomb and arson attacks on abortion clinics.
A dozen others, all domestic right-wingers, were arrested for collecting chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry. In all some 300 far-right terrorists and plotters were arrested. Only a handful of left-wing terror acts occurred, mainly environmental or animal-rights, none lethal.
America has two distinct terrorism problems. Both are serious, but neither poses a strategic, existential threat. Our greatest danger is within ourselves: our inability to listen to each other.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org