According to recent statistics, nearly twice as many people have been killed on American soil by right-wing extremists since 9/11 than by jihadists. The numbers may be hard to believe — and to digest — but a report by The New America Foundation shows that in the almost 14 years after that singular act of terrorism, 26 people died during "deadly jihadist attacks," whereas 48 died during "deadly right-wing attacks."'
Last week's violent assault on a church in Charleston, SC, during which nine churchgoers were allegedly shot and killed by extremist Dylann Roof, is listed as the most lethal of 19 right-wing plots since 9/11. The most deadly jihadist attack was the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, TX, when a U.S. Army Major and psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan was convicted of murdering 13 people.
There is little reassurance in these numbers, but they may be more indicative of a popular misunderstanding — that all terrorists attacks come from Muslims who want to harm innocent Americans — than of an undiscovered threat. Jacob N. Shapiro, Ph.D. an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and the author of The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations, explains that law enforcement has long been aware that homegrown terrorism of all facets exists and that most plots have been thwarted before they've begun.
So, statistically speaking, is what happened in Charleston surprising? "No, not at all," Shapiro says. Roof's shocking violence and hatred does not necessarily mean that his purported act was random.
But, in turn, that doesn't mean we should live under constant terror. "I travel to Pakistan a lot," Shapiro says. "My colleagues there often wonder if I'm worried about sending my kids to school, because we have schools that get shot at. Every year, there's a school shooting here. I still send my kids to school every day. We should be much more scared about driving 100 miles on Thanksgiving to see our families than we should be of dying from any kind of terrorism."
Ian Lustick, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Middle Eastern politics, is in agreement with Shapiro's math. In his essay "Trapped, or Not, in the Legacy of the War on Terror," Lustick reports that between 1999 and 2007, 385,601 people died in the United States from traffic accidents, and 273,162 had committed suicide. By contrast, terroisim took 2,973 lives. Lustick writes that "to move toward a more sensible assessment of the terrorism threat, we must first appreciate just how distorted are American public perceptions." By believing that terrorist attacks like 9/11 are highly likely threats and, moreover, that these threats will be carried out only by Muslims, we are deceiving ourselves.
That Americans are quick to equate Muslim-enacted violence with terrorism and, say, white-enacted violence with mental illness and poor upbringing does not surprise Lauren Ballester, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate and a former member of Students for Justice in Palestine.
"I think it makes sense," Ballester says. "That's how the media and the government portray it. They're never going to call what happened in Charleston an act of terror, because maintaining a certain level of Islamophobia amongst people helps serve our cause as a nation that's constantly attacking the Middle East."
To date, President Obama has not deemed what happened in Charleston an act of terror; rather, he referred to the killings as "senseless murders." As to how the public should view it, the left — like the New America Foundation — and the right — like Fox News — remain categorically divided.