Right-Wing Extremism Cannot Be Ignored | Commentary

Posted July 17, 2015 at 12:51pm

Despite common misperceptions, domestic terrorism, usually in the form of right-wing anti-government extremism, is a major source of violence in America. The death of four Marines in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a tragic reminder that extremist violence comes in all shapes and sizes and often comes from places we’re least suspecting. Sadly, we were also reminded of this fact last month, when a gunman entered the historic African-American church in South Carolina and killed nine people. Make no mistake, Dylann Roof is a terrorist. He committed these heinous acts of violence out of hate, to incite fear and deepen the divisions that still linger from a long and painful history in the U.S. However, what is not clear is how our nation will act to prevent these senseless acts of terror from happening in the future.

First, we must examine the types of terrorist threats Americans face every day. In the nearly 14 years since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims, according to the New America Foundation. This is not to say we should dismiss the very real threat of international terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State terror group and those it may inspire, but rather that we should avoid the tunnel vision that is consuming our current policies. We must heighten our focus on acts of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists.

These homegrown threats have tragically taken the lives of police officers, members of racial or religious minorities and random civilians. In June 2014, a married couple with anti-government views entered a Las Vegas pizza restaurant and fatally shot two police officers. The couple left a swastika, a flag with the slogan “Don’t tread on me” and a note saying, “This is the start of the revolution” on the officers’ bodies. Earlier in 2014, a well-known right-wing extremist who founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. He then drove to a nearby Jewish retirement community where he shot and killed a third person. In 2012, a gunman killed six people as congregants were arriving for Sunday morning services at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.

These are not isolated stories of anti-government violence, but a continued trend that some have been warning us about for years. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report that warned an ailing economy and the election of the first black president might prompt a violent reaction from right-wing anti-government extremists. Unfortunately, after conservative backlash, the DHS withdrew the report and disbanded the research team responsible for it. As a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, I spoke out against squelching the report and tried again to refocus on the issue after the Oak Creek shooting. In 2014, I urged the DHS to reinvigorate its previous efforts to monitor and combat the threat of domestic extremism.

However, the DHS is not alone in its assessments. A recent survey of 382 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide were asked by the Police Executive Research Forum to rank the three biggest threats from violent extremism in their jurisdiction. They found that 74 percent believed anti-government extremism to be one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction, while only 39 percent cited extremism connected with al-Qaida or like-minded terrorist organizations.

One American death is too much. This is why we must come together as a nation to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat all forms of extremism, not just the ones that fit a certain narrative. Too often acts of domestic terrorism by individual members of homegrown hate groups are explained away as acts of insanity to be treated as a mental health issue. We first must start by admitting there is a problem, not stick our heads in the sand when our security experts tell us something different than the partisan political narrative.

Extremist violence comes in all shapes and sizes and often comes from places we’re least suspecting. Once again, I am calling on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle along with federal agencies to reinvigorate their work studying and analyzing the radical right and homegrown terrorists who seek to disrupt our way of life.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. is a Democrat from New Jersey.