Terror where we pray: What gets attacked?

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)

 

Three weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, suicide bombers attacked three churches in Sri Lanka in coordinated acts of terrorism. More than 250 people were killed and some 500 injured.

Two days later, ISIS claimed responsibility, though it remains unclear just how involved in the plot the organization really was. The Sri Lankan government had detailed advance warning of the plot and failed to act to prevent them.

Closer to home, in early April a series of arson attacks targeted African American churches across a rural parish of Louisiana. A suspect, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff, was charged with hate crimes in the incidents.

Later that month, a 19-year-old member of an evangelical Christian church entered a synagogue outside San Diego and opened fire, killing one and wounding three others. In a manifesto he posted online, the suspect rooted his actions in biblical justification, belief in his own salvation, and a narrative that blames Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. He has been charged with federal hate crime and civil rights violations.

All of these incidents, as well as the mass shooting at mosques in New Zealand in March, got me wondering how frequently American places of worship are the targets of terrorist attacks, and what those incidents might tell us about the nature of terrorism in the United States. All of the data I am going to discuss below comes from the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland.

By stateFrom 1998 through 2017 there were 559 separate terrorist incidents in the United States. Of those, 80, or 14 percent, targeted places of worship. 2016 was the worst year for terrorist attacks on places of worship, with 23 separate incidents, though there were several years (1998, 2000-2003, 2006-2007) in which no terrorist attacks on religious targets were recorded.

As the chart here shows, attacks occurred in 28 states, with the highest number recorded in New York (10) followed by California (9), Florida (8), and Texas (8). The others in the dataset come in with five or fewer separate attacks. More noteworthy, however, are the kinds of places of worship that are targeted.

Targeting 2The most commonly targeted places of worship are not churches but mosques, accounting for 37 percent of all incidents during this 20-year period. Synagogues account for 17 percent of targets, and African American churches another 10 percent. Other churches account for 33 percent of cases. Others (Sikh and Hindu temples) make up the final three percent.

What does this tell us? That two-thirds of all terrorist attacks targeting places of worship are directed against religious or racial minorities.

Attacks on these minority places of worship have also been the deadliest. In 2012, six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, a case I’ve written about before. In 2014, three were killed in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, KS. In 2015, nine were killed at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. In 2016, two were killed in a shooting targeting an imam in New York City.

When the data is updated through 2018 we will be able to add the killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to this awful list.

Only two other fatal attacks on places of worship were recorded between 1998 and 2017. In 2008, two were killed in a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, TN, by perpetrators targeted the congregation because of its liberal social and political positions. And in 2017, one person was killed and eight wounded in a shooting at a church in Antioch, TN. There was no specific motive behind this attack.

Of the 80 attacks over the 20-year period covered here, only two were the work of Muslim extremists or jihadi-inspired perpetrators. No one was killed or injured in either incident.

What all these attacks suggest is that in the United States, terrorism targeting places of worship is consistent with the standard truth about American terrorism that I have been writing about since almost the beginning of this blog. Most of it is perpetrated by white nationalist or racist extremists on the far right of the political spectrum.

And thus a familiar pattern gets that much more familiar.

Some afternoon reading on America’s ‘patriot’ right

Members of a "Three Percenter" militia on winter maneuvers.
Members of a “Three Percenter” militia on winter maneuvers.

 

You may have noticed a theme here at the blog over the last couple of weeks. I have become particularly interested of late in America’s armed, anti-government far right. You can read some of my recent thoughts on the matter here, here, and here.

In part this is because I’m currently teaching my course on terrorism, and we explore some of the ideologies that motivate such groups both here in the United States and their counterparts abroad. Some of these groups are the focus of a couple of my students’ case study research projects.

But I’ve also become interested as a consequence of the toxic rhetoric that has emanated from Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House and the way that parts of his message are being embraced by some individuals and groups that make up the armed anti-government far right.

With that in mind, here are links to and short excerpts from two articles that I’ve run across in the last couple of days. The first is an excellent, and disturbing, inside look at a border operation mounted by militia groups loosely affiliated under the Three Percent United Patriots banner.

The piece, by Shane Bauer, appears in the November/December issue of Mother Jones. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Bauer’s report:

Members of 3UP view their border operations as an opportunity to serve the nation while putting their training to the test and honing their skills for the battle to come. Like most militiamen, they believe societal collapse is imminent. There are many theories about what will make the “Shit Hit The Fan.” Some believe it will be economic collapse. It could be civil unrest provoked by Black Lives Matter. It could be a natural disaster. It could be a government attempt to disarm gun owners and impose martial law. While many in the broader “patriot” movement prepare for that day to arrive, members of 3UP see themselves as men of action, sheepdogs in a nation of blind, ignorant sheep.

For more on the Three Percenter movement go to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s profile of one of its founders here. You should also check out the SPLC’s state-by-state breakdown of active anti-government groups, including more than 200 militia groups, here. For the record, SPLC identifies 32 anti-government groups in my home state of Michigan, including seven militias.

The second article that’s worth a little bit of your time is by Zack Beauchamp at Vox. He lays out an unlikely but all-too-plausible scenario whereby armed Trump supporters engage in election day intimidation and post-election violence. Here’s a taste:

Indeed, some of Trump’s supporters — especially from the loose-knit network of far-right political groups and militias — are now openly talking about post-election bloodshed. According to a January count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 276 such militias operating in the United States. A review of 240 militia group Facebook pages by researcher Jonathon Morgan found a spike in their online activity in recent months — with some members openly warning of the need for violence if Clinton wins.

“If she wins … it’s over, time for a revolution,” one militia member writes, according to Morgan. “Enough of being tough on the blogs, be tough in real life.”

Trump and his aides consistently and angrily deny using irresponsible language that raises the risk of civil unrest. The problem is that violence could erupt all the same because of the atmosphere of paranoia that Trump has helped create.

I have argued for a long time on this site that the greatest terrorism threat America faces comes from within, not from newly arrived immigrants nor from refugees acting as an ISIS Trojan horse.

I sincerely hope that in two weeks time, and in the days that follow, we don’t see that point driven home again, and in horrifying fashion.