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August 19, 2009

Are Right Wingers Prone to Terrorism?

Glenn Reynolds has a great roundup of responses to that asinine post from Josh Marshall regarding the well known propensity of Teh Evil Mongering Right to engage in violent acts of terrorism. He comments:

If you’re looking for lefty violence, what about Lee Harvey Oswald, who by any objective measure was far-left? As for the legal carrying of guns, Marshall has — in a rare turn of events — gotten himself out of sync with the White House message. I’m sure he’ll rectify that posthaste.

As it so happens, the half vast Editorial Staff here at VC took a look at actual domestic terrorism data recently:

I realize that in certain circles it is considered the height of tolerant, enlightened sophistication to wallow in the astonishing parallels between mere political disagreement and paranoid schizophrenia. But surely even the irony impaired ought to be able to grasp the frothing idiocy behind playing Pin the Ideology on the Deranged Psychopath? ... Dare I suggest that bursting into a public building and wasting innocent bystanders is perhaps not the act of a rational soul with a coherent world view?

... all this posthumorous registering of dead whack jobs to the other party to score political points ...got me wondering: who were most of the terrorists and terrorist conspirators over the last 10 years?

The answers are pretty interesting:

Last night, egged on by Marshall's steadfastly non-divisive, non-fear mongering divisive fear mongering, the Editorial Staff opted to take a more comprehensive look at terrorist attacks over the last 50 years. Aided by our trusty staff of itinerant Eskimo typists, we went back to 1960 and categorized terrorist attacks and failed attacks. The first thing we found (quelle surprise!) is that it's not always easy to neatly categorize the motivations of murderous whack jobs.

Since, unlike Josh Marshall, we didn't engage in this little exercise to confirm our pre-existing fear and loathing of the Left, this wasn't exactly a shocker. A few observations before presenting our results:

Terrorism data is both incomplete and heavily dependent on the bins one puts an attack into. For instance, how do you categorize a righty terrorist who kills from some twisted notion that he's protecting the unborn by murdering abortionists? Is he still a right winger if it turns out he also violently opposes mainstream Republican doctrine? Come to think of it, is it really surprising that if you're crazy enough to kill folks for the crime of disagreeing with you, there just might be a few screws loose in the old brain housing group? Likewise, Lefties are supposed to hate war and eschew violence. Isn't there a conflict, then, in dubbing someone who uses organized violence to protest organized violence, "Left Wing"?

Hey - no one ever said these folks make sense. That's why they call them criminals. My criteria were simple - if the perpetrator had ties to a group associated with the Left (like the Weathermen), he was dubbed Left Wing. If he had ties to Right Wing militia, he was dubbed Right Wing. It should be understood (by all those except perhaps Josh Marshall) that there is no evidence that either the Republican nor Democrat party formally endorses terrorism. But then the day is young and we've yet to hear from Howard Dean.

That said, here is the breakdown of major domestic terrorist incidents over the past 50 years:


Note a few things about this chart that surprised me:

1. There were more - far more - terrorist acts committed by Black Militants than by White Supremacists. Where is Contessa Brewer when you need her?

2. There were far more terrorist acts committed by individuals or groups with left wing ties than ones with right wing ties.

Does this mean there's some dark component to Leftist ideology that predisposes progressives to acts of violence or proves that Right Winguts are nothing more than a bunch of loony terrorists in waiting? At the risk of disappointing the Josh Marshalls on both sides of the political aisle, I don't think the data support either conclusion.

For one thing, even if you lump White Supremacists, Right Wingers and Religious nuts (among whom were some who appeared to be Hindus) into the Right Wing bin, the Lefties still outnumber the Righties. On the other hand, in many cases terrorists appeared to be motivated by more than one animating set of ideas. Arguably, Anarchists could be lumped in with Left Wingers. The FBI placed them there but I didn't do so because I'm not sure it's valid to equate wanting no government with wanting a more powerful and intrusive Left leaning government. Likewise, the FBI lumps Black Militants in with Left Wingers, but it seemed to me that the more apt comparison was White Supremacists vs. Black Militants. Chances are that if a group freely chooses to put the word "Black" in their name, race has a fair amount to do with their agenda. So even though the FBI calls them leftist, I call them racially motivated.

The vast majority of Lefties were either anti-war or radical leftists trying to usher in a thousand years of Communist utopia by way of inciting a revolution amongst the proletariat.

For another, the mix of terrorist groups changed every decade. But I don't think the nature of progressive ideology (to say nothing of human nature) changed every decade. In the 60s and 70s, black militants, the anti-war movement, and a few Zionists predominated. In the 80s, religious motivations, right wing extremists, and foreign terrorism (freedom fighters and the like) pulled ahead.

In the 90s, right wing militias, Islamists, and Anarchists held sway.

After 2000, Islamists took first place followed by equal numbers of right wingers and left wingers.

3. Jewish terrorists! Oy vey!!!

And just for balance, this pie chart from the Clinton-era FBI may be of some interest, especially as it covers the very same decade (the 1990s) Marshall cherry picked to "prove" we conservatives are just a bunch of murdering terrorists.

Note an amusing passage from the Clinton-era report:

The loosely affiliated group of international extremists who bombed the World Trade Center in February 1993 was not acting on behalf of any nation that sponsors anti-Western terrorism. Nor was the group a formal terrorist organization with an identifi- able organizational structure, known base of opera- tion, or well-established means of fund-raising. Rather, the group was made up of individuals repre- senting several different nationalities who came together for the express purpose of carrying out a ter- rorist attack. Likewise, the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was perpetrated by domestic extremists with only tangential ties to the militia movement. Despite the lack of an established organizational structure and support base, however, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols were able to plan, finance, and carry out the most deadly act of terror- ism ever to occur in the United States. Loosely affiliated extremists–either domestic or interna- tional in nature–may pose the most urgent terrorist threat in the United States at this time. They do not, how- ever, represent the only threat. In fact, the increasing challenge posed by unaf- filiated or loosely affiliated extremists is a relatively recent development in the long struggle against terrorism.

...From the 1960s to the 1980s,
leftist-oriented extremist groups posed the most serious
domestic terrorist threat to the United States. In
the 1980s, however, the fortunes of the leftist movement
declined dramatically as law enforcement dismantled
the infrastructure of many of these groups,

and as the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe
deprived the movement of its ideological foundation
and patronage.

...As the threat from left-wing groups receded
during the latter part of the 1980s, the overall level
of terrorism in the United States began to decline
significantly. However, a shift in the domestic terrorism
threat from a leftist orientation to a right-wing
focus had already begun to take place. This shift
ultimately occurred in two waves that would have
far-reaching consequences during the late 1980s and
again in the 1990s.

The FBI report goes on to identify a "Third Wave" of terrorism: single issue terrorism:

Today, right-wing terrorists–most notably loosely affiliated extremists–continue to represent a formidable challenge to law enforcement agencies around the country, even as animal rights and environmental extremism takes on a higher profile and elicits greater interest and concern among law enforcement.

Is it possible to predict the next wave? Not
likely. But a study of the past reveals some potentially
helpful patterns. Violent domestic extremism in
the United States has been closely linked to contemporary
political/social concerns. In each of the three
identifiable waves, violent extremism has represented
a small, radicalized component of broad-based, largely
peaceful movements sharing similar concerns. With
regard to left- and right-wing terrorism, aggressive
prosecution of group leaders, violent offenders, and
those plotting attacks contributed significantly to
limiting the overall threat posed by groups with these

While central focusing events help to crystalize
extremist movements, the rise in animal rights/
environmental extremism during the past several
years shows that such incidents are not necessarily
critical to the development of an extremist reaction
to governmental/corporate policies or actions. A radical
commitment to a particular cause may be sufficient.
However, a defining event may serve to attract
new adherents to a cause and may also change the
direction or targeting patterns among extremists...

What do we take from this? A few thoughts:

1. Neither left wing nor right wing ideology seems definitively linked to terrorism. Instead, the motivations of domestic terrorists and the mix of groups sponsoring them appear to fluctuate with changing political conditions and the attention paid to them by law enforcement. When you stop and think about the goals of terrorism, this shouldn't be surprising. Terrorists, by definition, go outside the political process to gain by violence and fear what they cannot by building consensus through legitimate political processes, so as power shifts, so will the subset of the populace that feels disenfranchised for whatever reason.

2. There's a lesson here: any time sweeping changes take place and certain viewpoints are demonized or excluded from the debate, some minority of the populace begin to feel powerless. That feeling of powerlessness has far more to do with the violent extremism and the origins of terrorism than whether one votes Democrat or Republican.

3. That said, there isn't any convincing evidence that any one group is more likely to resort to violent extremism than another. It's more than a bit ironic that the same Lefties who got their noses thoroughly out of joint when their anti-war and anti-Bush protests weren't acted upon now seem determined to criminalize "patriotic dissent" from the other side of the aisle. Last time I checked, the Left were against thought crime, but perhaps that too has changed.

4. As much as conservatives may not care for the thought, it's not entirely unreasonable for liberals to fear violent reactions from some subset of disaffected conservatives. Barack Obama seeks to alter the fundamental relationship between government and the private sector and he's been openly gloating that he can ram his proposed reforms through without the support of a large sector of the populace. But these are huge changes that shouldn't be entered into lightly, quickly, or without plenty of debate.

Those on the progressive side of the aisle who argued that Bush should have submitted to the will of the people as evidenced by the latest poll results are on shaky ground when they brandish the "we won" mantra. That said, if Congress can muster the votes, conservatives are going to have a hard time arguing the result is illegitimate when they made the opposite argument with regard to funding the war in Iraq (a war, I might add, that the Left appears to have dropped its vehement opposition to now that Teh Won is in office). So much for ideological purity.

That said, thoughtless demonization of the Josh Marshall variety is more likely to inflame already frayed sensibilities than to prevent the violence he claims to fear. As I mentioned in my previous post, it's a comforting illusion to think that all the nut jobs in America conveniently cluster on one side or the other of the political aisle. A little more light and a lot less heat will help us navigate some admittedly difficult times.

Oh, and Mr. Marshall: while you're at it, why not take a long hard look in the mirror? Intolerance and bigotry wear many faces. Thanks to you, today they wear a liberal face. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Hopefully your fellow progressives have more sense.

Posted by Cassandra at August 19, 2009 08:50 AM

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Anozer day, anozer vell placed und swift kick to ze posteriah of a most deserving horses derrière.

Very nize job Princess, Editorial Staff, und itinerant Eskimos.

Posted by: Zigman Schadenfreude at August 19, 2009 02:41 PM


You know me. No sacred ox unGored :p

Posted by: Sigmund Freud's Hanes UltraSheers at August 19, 2009 03:22 PM

Please, it is a scientific fact - all unsolved acts of terrorism can be credited to the vast right wing conspiracy.

Posted by: RIslander at August 19, 2009 04:15 PM

Are Right Wingers Prone to Terrorism?

By and large, I'd have to say no. Of course, there are always nutjobs from every political perspective...

Posted by: camojack at August 20, 2009 01:05 AM