The attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a man named
James Alex Fields Jr. used his Dodge Challenger as a
weapon against a crowd of protesters, underscores the
growing violence of America’s far-right wing.
According to reports, Fields was a active member of an
online far-right community. Like many other far-right activists,
he believes that he represents a wider ideological community,
even though he acted alone.
My 15 years experience of studying violent extremism in Western
societies has taught me that dealing effectively with far-right
violence requires treating its manifestations as domestic
In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, the Department of
Justice announced it would launch a federal investigation:
“…that kind of violence, committed for seeming political ends,
is the very definition of domestic terrorism.”
This acknowledgment may signal that a growing domestic menace may
finally get the attention it deserves. While attacks by outsider
Jihadist groups will probably continue, domestic terrorism still
deserves more attention than it’s getting.
Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. Most terrorist groups
lack the resources, expertise and manpower to defeat state
actors. Instead, they promote their agenda through violence that
shapes perceptions of political and social issues.
Fields’ attack, if it was motivated by racist sentiments, should
be treated as an act of domestic terrorism. Here I define
domestic terrorism as the use of violence in a political and
social context that aims to send a message to a broader target
audience. Like lynching, cross-burning and vandalizing religious
sites, incidents of this kind deliberately aim
to terrorize people of
color and non-Christians.
I consider domestic terrorism a more significant threat than the
foreign-masterminded variety, in part because the number of
domestic terror attacks on US soil is greater. For example,
my report published by the
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point identified hundreds of
domestic terror incidents taking place between 2008 and 2012.
Another report, published in 2014 by New America Foundation on
domestic incidents of extremist violence, shows that excluding
the Orlando nightclub massacre, between 2002-2016,
far-right affiliated perpetrators conducted 18 attacks that
killed 48 people in the United States. Meanwhile, terrorists
motivated by al-Qaida’s or the Islamic State’s ideology killed 45
people in nine attacks.
The Orlando mass shooting, given its mix of
apparent motives, is difficult to categorize.
A spontaneous appearance
In briefings with law enforcement and policymakers, I have
sometimes encountered a tendency to see US right-wing extremists
as a monolith. But traditional Ku Klux Klan
chapters operate differently than
skinhead groups, as do anti-government “patriot”
and militia groups and anti-abortion
extremists. Christian Identity groups, which believe
Anglo-Saxons and other people of Northern European descent are a
chosen people, are distinct too.
Certainly, there is some overlap. But these groups also differ
significantly in terms of their recruitment
styles, ideologies and whether and
how they use violence. Across the board, undermining the threat
they pose requires a more sophisticated approach than
investigating their criminal acts as suspected hate crimes.
In an ongoing study I’m conducting at the University of
Massachusetts Lowell with several students, we have determined
that, as it seems to be also in the case of Fields, many attacks
inspired by racist or xenophobic sentiments are spontaneous. That
is, no one plans them in advance or targets the victim ahead of
time. Instead, chance encounters that enrage the perpetrators
trigger these incidents.
Sporadic attacks with high numbers of casualties that are plotted
in advance, such as Dylann Roof’s murder of nine
African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church, are
always big news. More typical incidents of far-right violence
tend to draw less attention.
The fatal stabbing of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick
Best aboard a train in Portland, Oregon on
May 26 seems to be no exception.
The alleged killer of these two white
men, Jeremy Joseph Christian, attacked them with a
knife after they stood up to him for haranguing two young women
who appeared to be Muslim, police said. A third injured
passenger, Micahel Fletcher, has survived.
Much of the media coverage is focused on
Christian’s violent and
Given the spontaneous nature of so much far-right violence, US
counterterrorism policies should, in my view, target the
dissemination of white supremacist ideology, rather than just
identifying planned attacks and monitoring established white
An iceberg theory
The number of violent attacks on US soil inspired by far-right
ideology has spiked since the beginning of this century, rising
from a yearly average of 70 attacks in the 1990s to a yearly
average of more than 300 since 2001. These incidents have grown
even more common since President Donald Trump’s election.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that researches US
extremism, reported 900 bias-related
incidents against minorities in the first
10 days after Trump’s election – compared to several dozen in a
normal week – and found that many of the harassers invoked the
then-president-elect’s name. Similarly, the Anti-Defamation
League, a nonprofit that tracks anti-Semitism, recorded
an 86 percent rise in
anti-Semitic incidents in the first three months of 2017.
Beyond the terror that victimized communities are experiencing, I
would argue that this trend reflects a deeper social change in
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 US far-right
extremists compose the visible tip of an iceberg. The rest of
this iceberg is under water and out of sight. It includes
hundreds of attacks every year that damage property and
intimidate communities, such as the attempted burning in May of
an African-American family’s
garage in Schodack, New York. The garage
was also defaced with racist graffiti.
Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
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
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.
Despite an uptick in far-right violence and the Trump
administration’s plan unveiled earlier this year to increase
the Department of Homeland Security
budget by 6.7 percent
to US$44.1 billion in 2018, the White House also
proposed to cut spending for programs that fight non-Muslim
The federal government has also frozen $10 million in grants
aimed at countering domestic violent extremism. This approach is
bound to weaken the authorities’ power to monitor far-right
groups, undercutting public safety.
How many more innocent people like Heather Heyer, who was killed
in Fields’ attack – and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick
Best in Seattle – have to die before the US government starts
taking the threat posed by violent white supremacists more