White Terrorism: The image most Americans have when they think of terrorism is an act committed by someone wearing a turban. That is mostly a result of the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, and their lingering aftermath, especially a declared ‘war on terror’ that focused on battling radical Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
In much of the public imagination, Adkisson’s and Roof’s rampages were isolated incidents. In reality, however, they were key manifestations of a larger, more disturbing phenomenon, one which has been ignored or even actively discounted by elected officials and the mainstream media – rightwing domestic terrorism.
In the seven and a half years between those two attacks, domestic terrorism in America – acts that are plotted and executed on American soil, directed at US citizens, by actors based here – spiked dramatically. But hardly anyone noticed.
Rightwing extremist terrorism was more often deadly than Islamist extremism: nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of seventy-nine deaths, whereas just 8% of Islamist incidents caused fatalities. However, the total number of deaths resulting from Islamist incidents was higher – 90 – due largely to three mass shootings in which nearly all the casualties occurred: in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, and in 2015 in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, in 2016. Incidents related to leftwing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights actions, were comparatively rare: 19 incidents resulted in five deaths.
Welcome to Alt-America.
Alt-America is an alternative universe that has a powerful resemblance to our own, except that it’s a completely different America, the nation its residents have concocted and reconfigured in their imaginations. In this other America, suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories, often pedalled by media outlets from Infowars to Fox News, become concrete realities. Its citizens live alongside us in our universe, but their perception of that universe places them in a different world altogether, one scarcely recognizable to those outside it.
As Alt-America has grown, especially online, so has the violence that inevitably accompanies it: acts of domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and threats of “revolution” and “civil war,” backed by a wave of citizen militias. All of them gained impetus during the Obama years and there was a significant wave of such incidents in 2015 and 2016, very likely fueled by the Trump campaign.
Indeed, the Trump campaign itself had an effect on the ground similar to that of eliminationist rhetoric generally: it seemingly gave permission, in its stubborn refusal to bow to “political correctness,” for people to act and speak in an openly bigoted and spiteful fashion. It was as though the campaign lifted the lid off the national id, and the violent, vicious tendencies that had been held in check for years came crawling right out. The murder, in Charlottesville, of the anti-racism protester Heather Heyer by a white supremacist was only the most visible example.
Domestic terrorism attacks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and San Bernardino, California, in the fall of 2015 and the massacre of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the following summer, were all committed by nonwhites ostensibly motivated by Islamist extremism. In their wake various experts on terrorism and media pundits and government officials began raising concerns about the role of the internet in radicalizing Muslims and fueling such violence.
But the massive media and public attention to these incidents also underscored how disproportionate this response was compared to the response to acts of terrorism committed by those influenced by white supremacism or other kinds of far-right extremism.
Both media accounts and law enforcement officials were reluctant to identify Dylann Roof ’s rampage as domestic terrorism, despite the fact that it easily fit the FBI definition of terrorism: politically motivated acts of violence intended to influence policy and/or terrorize the public.
When an anti-abortion extremist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November 2015, and killed three people, and when a militia gang was arrested for plotting to bomb a Kansas Muslim community in October 2016, not only were the crimes not identified as domestic terrorism, but the cases received relatively little media and public attention. All of these incidents, like so many of the ones that came before them, had one thing in common: their perpetrators had been radicalized online. Dylann Roof spent most of his days reading alt-right websites.
It was little noted, despite plenty of evidence, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim radicals was occurring simultaneously on a large scale in a complete separate region of the internet: among radical white male nationalists of the alt-right. The people being radicalized were not brown-skinned foreigners who subscribed to a different religion, but young white men and women in white America’s neighborhoods and churches and colleges, white America’s sons and daughters.-THE GUARDIAN