White Communities Need to Do More to Ferret Out Terrorists in Their Midst
There was a time, not that long ago, when Donald Trump insisted it takes a village to end terrorism; that a community is a first line of defensive against domestic terror. Last October, Trump suggested the onus for ending U.S. terror attacks falls largely on Muslims, whom he wrongly implied need to do better at rooting out radicalized extremists in their own communities.
“We have to be sure that Muslims...report when they see something going on,” Trump said during a presidential debate in a twisted, roundabout defense of Islamophobia. “When [Muslims] see hatred going on, they have to report it.” A few months earlier, Trump suggested that Muslims who don’t report potential terrorists should face some kind of punishment. "Muslims are the ones that see what's going on,” Trump said to disgraced ex-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “The Muslims are the ones that have to report [a terrorist]. And if they don't report him, then there have to be consequences to them."
Those statements contain the racism, ignorance and fearmongering that typify Trump’s remarks, and like so many others, have little to do with the truth. As multiple counterterrorism officials, including then-FBI head James Comey, rushed to point out, Muslim American communities already report terror threats to authorities; one official characterized the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities as “robust.”
Also relevant is the fact the greatest threat to this country isn’t American Muslims or Islamic immigrants or refugees, but domestic terrorists who are overwhelmingly white and Christian. “Patriot group” members, Ku Klux Klan officers and neo-Nazis, young preppies aligned with the so-called alt-right: these are the real faces of terror, according to facts and stats. Over the last nine years, “right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents” of American terrorism as Muslim extremists, and police managed to foil just 35 percent of right-wing extremist terror plots. (By contrast, cops preempted 76 percent of terror plots by Islamist extremists, probably thanks to input from Muslim community members and leaders.) In other words, there definitely is a community that needs to step up and report terrorism right now. That community happens to look a lot like the neo-Nazis actually causing the bulk of U.S. terror.
Homegrown white terrorists are coming to their beliefs in suburban bedrooms and all-American small towns, wealthy gated communities and white working-class neighborhoods. Richard Spencer is a rich kid from Dallas; Christopher Cantwell grew up in the leafy environs of Stony Brook, New York; “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler is a native of liberal college town Charlottesville, Virginia. Who knows what their friends and neighbors knew about their beliefs before they joined the groups whose names currently fill news feeds. There are generally clues that warn of radicalization. James Alex Fields Jr., who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at Kessler’s event, injuring 19 and murdering Heather Heyer, grew up in a Kentucky county that’s nearly 94 percent white. He wrote a paper in high school that one of his teachers recalls being “very much along the party lines of the neo-Nazi movement” and described him as being even then “very misguided and disillusioned.” Imagine if he’d been a Muslim student who had written a paper in support of ISIS, what the school’s reaction would likely have been. The difference might have been life and death.
We especially need white people to step up and report would-be terrorists in their communities because it’s a safe bet the government won’t be doing anything to stop them. The Trump administration recently slashed funding for organizations fighting neo-Nazis and other violent right-wing extremist groups. It canceled hundreds of thousands of dollars reportedly earmarked for “one of the only programs in the U.S. devoted to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other white supremacy groups,” as well as a university program to “counter...white supremacist recruiting.” More generally, a president who has openly sympathized with neo-Nazis and relies on misleading data to spread misinformation about the source of terror isn’t making scrutiny of white power groups a priority. There’s a far greater likelihood of another Charlottesville, or an Oklahoma City bombing for that matter, than anything done by Muslim extremists.
That’s a particularly scary prospect in this moment when right-wing terror is on the rise. Young white men on sites from Stormfront to 4chan to Reddit and even Twitter are logging in and being radicalized all the time. The manosphere, where white guys come for the misogyny and stay for the racism, is a machine that effectively yields radical white terrorists in periods as short as a few months. Richard Hansen, a political scientist at UC Irvine, recently published a paper on how the internet has helped hate groups spread their numbers at rates they could only have dreamed of before the digital era. “It just becomes easier to organize, to spread the word, for people to know where to go,” Hansen told Pacific Standard. “It could be to raise money, or it could be to engage in attacks on social media. Some of the activity is virtual. Some of it is in a physical place. Social media has lowered the collective-action problems that individuals who might want to be in a hate group would face. You can see that there are people out there like you. That's the dark side of social media.”
Trump won’t be calling on white communities to do their due diligence and report terror threats, but this should be a motivating moment. It’s impossible to count the number of potentially violent racists operating in this country at any given time (the vast majority of racists don’t have official affiliations), but the SPLC puts the number of hate groups at somewhere around 920. There was a dramatic increase in hate crimes over the course of the election season, and those numbers only climbed higher after Trump’s election. For every Heather Heyer or Richard Collins III, the African-American college student murdered by a racist a few days shy of graduation from Bowie State, there are an unknowable number of crimes that never get reported or hit the wires. Arie Perliger, an University of Massachusetts professor and expert in far-right politics, writes in a column at Newsweek that this may reflect a sea change.
Beyond the terror that victimized communities are experiencing, I would argue that this trend reflects a deeper social change in American society. The iceberg model of political extremism, initially developed by Ehud Shprinzak, an Israeli political scientist, can illuminate these dynamics. Murders and other violent attacks perpetrated by U.S. far-right extremists compose the visible tip of an iceberg. The rest of this iceberg is underwater and out of sight. It includes hundreds of attacks every year that damage property and intimidate communities...Data my team collected at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point show that the significant growth in far-right violence in recent years is happening at the base of the iceberg. While the main reasons for that are still not clear, it is important to remember that changes in societal norms are usually reflected in behavioral changes. Hence, it is more than reasonable to suspect that extremist individuals engage in such activities because they sense that their views are enjoying growing social legitimacy and acceptance, which is emboldening them to act on their bigotry.
To prevent the “social legitimacy and acceptance” Perlinger points to, their communities need to be stepping forward in the way people have been telling Muslims to do for years. After all, becoming a neo-Nazi is just like becoming any other kind of terrorist. The radicalizing process is almost identical.
“The processes are pretty much the same,” Mary Beth Altier, a New York University professor whose work centers on understanding political violence, told Vox. “There aren’t really distinctions between joining a group like the KKK and ISIS.”
So maybe there should be the same expectation of those communities to speak up and speak out.