Civil Liberties

Three Strange Claims in Mother Jones's Report on the 'Rise of Right-Wing Extremism'

Taking a closer look at the data


This week Mother Jones posted a story headlined "The Rise of Violent Right-Wing Extremism, Explained." Alas, some of its explanations are a bit off:

• The article quotes a 2012 paper by Arie Perliger of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center to establish that "there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots" from the far right since 2007. This would be more persuasive if the Mother Jones piece didn't go on to include a chart from Perliger's report that very clearly shows a lower number of incidents when Perliger was writing than in 2007:

Combatting Terrorism Center

I should note that Perliger's figures have come in for a lot of criticism, and that Perliger's paper itself points out that it isn't clear to what extent the apparent growth from 1990 to 2011 reveals a real increase in the number of incidents and to what extent it just means our measurements are more accurate. (Bear in mind that his tally includes things like racist vandalism, which is tracked much more closely now than in the past. As Perliger puts it, "the quality of, and accessibility to, data on hate crimes and far right violence has improved during the last two decades.") But whether you buy his numbers or not, his total for 2011 is less than his total for 2007.

• The article cites data from the Southern Poverty Law Center to show that "the number of American extremist groups has also risen overall in recent years":

Mother Jones

I have some serious problems with the Southern Poverty Law Center's tallies, but the more immediate problem here is that the organization itself is very explicit about the fact that its count of "extremist" groups is currently declining; it is now more likely to trumpet the threat of "lone wolves" who don't belong to groups. Mother Jones's chart avoids this decline by cutting off in 2011. So for the record: The SPLC's latest figures show 784 hate groups, 874 "patriot" groups, and 19 organizations of "nativist extremists," all far lower than the most recent figures in Mother Jones's chart. (The militias, meanwhile, are a subset of the patriot groups. Including them as a separate line on the chart veers close to double-counting.)

• The article notes that in "February, CNN reported that [the Department of Homeland Security] circulated an intelligence assessment that focused on the domestic terror threat posed by right-wing extremists." Well, yes, CNN did report that. And then someone leaked me the intelligence assessment in question, and I posted it here at Hit & Run. If you read it for yourself, you'll see that it focuses on one narrow subculture (the "sovereign citizens"); that rather than seeing an increasing threat, it says it expects the group's violence to stay "at the same sporadic level" in the coming year; and that it never once uses the word "right-wing."

Poor Marat in your bathtub seat/your life on this planet is near complete/Closer and closer to you death creeps/though there on her bench Charlotte Corday sleeps
Paul Baudry

Finally, here's something you should bear in mind when reading any count of right-wing terror attacks: These tallies tend to be a catch-all jumble of people with different ideologies. If you compare the manifesto of the man who murdered those churchgoers in Charleston last month to the manifesto of the man who flew a plane into a Texas IRS office a few years ago, you won't find much common ground. (In the latter case, I'm not sure the author even hails from the far right so much as the far end of the political long tail.) It's misleading to reify these incidents into a unified "threat," especially since the numbers involved are ultimately so low.

Writing recently in The New York Times, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer declared that the "main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists." Here is an alternative view: Much as it might pain the counterterrorism industry to admit it, the U.S. doesn't have a "main terrorist threat" right now. As my colleague Ron Bailey noted this morning, "Americans are 69 times more likely to die taking a bath than from terrorism." And no, he's not talking about Charlotte Corday.