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Is the US Treating the Far-Right Threat Seriously Enough?

Recent Attacks Show Need to Re-Examine Priorities

A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in remembrance of those killed and injured when a shooter opened fire during services Saturday at the synagogue. © 2018 AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

If there is one thing the massacre at a Jewish synagogue, the pipe bombs mailed to leading Democratic party figures, and the racist violence that claimed the lives of two African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger store last week show, it’s that far-right and racist extremism are serious threats in the United States. Though law enforcement took swift action towards investigating and prosecuting those accused of carrying out these attacks, it is not clear the US federal government is taking this threat as seriously as it should.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US has devoted enormous energy and resources towards countering threats posed by those accused of affiliation with extremists associating themselves with Islam both in the US and abroad. When US officials seek greater surveillance authority, they also frequently do so by emphasizing threats they say are posed by Muslims.

But since 9/11, according to a 2017 Government Accounting Office report, far-right violent extremists have committed 62 attacks in the US, far more than the 23 carried out by people connected to Islamic extremists. These attacks have killed close to the same number of people, 106 compared to 119. A New American Foundation study, using different definitions, found far-right extremists committed 86 deadly attacks compared to the 104 committed by Islamist extremists.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the US needs to adopt a federal domestic terrorism statute like some are proposing. Many crimes committed by far-right extremists are prosecuted at the state level because those carrying out the attacks are not connected to an international terrorism group. Enacting a federal domestic terrorism statute risks embedding some of the same problems associated with use of the overbroad federal material support for terrorism statute that Human Rights Watch and others have documented.

But at a minimum, the US should examine whether the lopsided allocation of resources to countering Islamic extremist threats, and US policy priorities, are really justified when the threats posed by far-right extremists are on the rise.

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