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.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)
(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)

 

“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.

The logic of terrorism

paulhasson

Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.

The truth about terrorism in America

american-domestic-terrorism

I started writing this blog in February 2015. Three months later, in May, I wrote these words:

1) Not all terrorists are foreigners.

2) Not all religious terrorists are Muslims.

I have now written some variation of this formula more than 20 times over the last three-and-a-half years. After the tragic events of last week, I find myself writing these words again:

The typical face of terrorism in America belongs to an angry, right-wing, middle-aged, white man.

In May 2015 I was writing about the death of Neal Horsley, who called for the murder of abortion doctors and clinic workers in the name of protecting the unborn. Today, I’m writing about, and the nation is mourning the lives taken by, anti-semite Robert Bowers, who slaughtered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

According to his social media posts, Bowers’ attack was motivated by a toxic combination of white supremacy, hatred for Jews, anti-refugee animus, and a belief that the U.S. government was doing too little to stop the migrant “caravan” making its slow way from Honduras, through Mexico, toward our southern border.

Last week I was writing, and the nation was talking, about Cesar Sayoc, who over the course of a week mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and liberal activists, all of whom shared the common characteristic of having been publicly named by President Donald Trump as enemies of himself, his agenda, or both. Sayoc was arrested on Friday. His social media, and the van he was living in, was literally covered with images and language dripping with pro-Trump, anti-Democrat, anti-media bile.

I could repeat all of these arguments again. I could remind you, as I did an audience earlier this month, that since 1965 right-wing extremists have killed 20 times more police officers than have homegrown Islamic extremists, and that over the last decade have been responsible for 71 percent of all the murders perpetrated by political extremists in the United States.

Instead, I’m going to give you what amounts to a digest of all of the writing I’ve done in this space on the reality of right-wing terrorism in the United States. You can lie to yourself all you want that the main threat of terrorism comes from refugees, or immigrants, or foreigners.

The truth is a lot harder to face.

  • July 2, 2015 – This is what terrorism in America really looks like – “These incidents are a reminder that, with a few notable exceptions, and a single extraordinary one on Sept. 11, 2001, the story of terrorism in the United States has long been one of Americans using violence against Americans in support of causes or in the pursuit of goals that are embraced by yet other Americans.”
  • Nov. 24, 2015 – As we panic over refugees … – “It would be comforting to think that this sort of thing is unusual in the United States, but the reality is more unsettling. Since 9/11, right-wing extremists have been responsible for nearly twice as many deaths in the United States as have jihadists.”
  • June 13, 2016 – The direct line connecting Oklahoma City to Orlando runs through the far right – “While today we associate lone wolf attacks with homegrown Islamist terrorism, like the Ft. Hood, Boston Marathon, San Berndardino, and now Orlando killings, the strategy of leaderless resistance has its origins in the American white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and paramilitary far right groups of the 1980s.”
  • Sept. 29, 2016 – Americans at war with America – “According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, the suspect indicated that he was ready and willing to ‘go to war’ and told an acquaintance that he shared McVeigh’s anti-government ideology. Would he have followed through on his threats? It’s impossible to know, and thankfully we won’t have to find out. But whether he was serious or just blowing smoke, the threat of right-wing terrorism is no joke. In June 2015 the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reported that ‘Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.’
  • Oct. 15, 2016 – What counts as terrorism? – “For most Americans, near as I can tell, it’s not what the guy pictured above did. He’s Wade Michael Page, and four years ago he gunned down six worshippersat a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before before being killed by a local police officer. Page, a veteran of the US Army, had spent decades swimming in the deep end of the cesspool that is the white supremacist universe. He was a member of two white power skinhead bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate. In 2010 End Apathy played at a racist music festival in Baltimore called Independent Artist Uprise.”
  • Oct. 17, 2016 – This week in terrorism history, Oct. 16-22 – “Over the weekend news broke of a thwarted terrorism plot in Kansas in which three members of a far-right militia group were charged with conspiring to destroy an apartment complex where Somali immigrants lived and maintained a mosque. They intended to detonate four simultaneous car bombs similar to the one which Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the US federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.”
  • Oct. 26, 2016 – Some afternoon reading on America’s ‘patriot’ right – “… 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.”
  • Oct. 31, 2016 – This week in terrorism history, Oct. 30-Nov. 5 – “Two weeks ago, three members of a right-wing militia in Kansas were arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack on an apartment complex where Somali immigrants lived and maintained a mosque. To understand the climate of fear and bigotry that could inspire and nurture such a plot, look no farther than the above campaign literature produced the Kansas State Republican Party and mailed throughout the state.”
  • Nov. 2, 2016 – The militias are ready for Nov. 9 – “Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins next Tuesday, the militia movement isn’t waiting to prepare for what comes next. They’re ready now.”
  • Jan. 30, 2017 – The typical face of American terrorism, Canada edition – “While Fox News spent the day falsely claiming that a Moroccan Muslim was responsible for killing six worshippers after evening prayers at a mosque in Quebec City, and White House Spokesman Sean Spicer latched on to that lie to justify the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, the real suspect was identified by Canadian police as a white, rabid, anti-immigration nationalist.”
  • Feb. 6 – 2017 – At war with America – “Tomorrow night the PBS program American Experience airs a documentary on what remains the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck loaded with a five-ton fertilizer bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was the kind of bomb that leveled the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 US service members. It was the kind of bomb that the IRA used to turn the heart of London’s financial district to rubble in 1993.”
  • Feb. 9, 2017 – No, congressman, there really isn’t a difference – “Duffy’s poor memory and general ignorance on the topic of white extremist terrorism, whether racially, religiously, or politically motivated, is sadly not unusual. Americans tend not to recognize attacks like what Page did in Oak Creek, or for that matter Dylann Roof’s Charleston massacre, as acts of terrorism. … A dozen terrorist attacks in Wisconsin between 1994 and 2012 and they all have one thing in common. None were committed by Muslims.”
  • Aug. 6, 2017 – Yes, this is terrorism – “If a bomb goes off at a mosque in Minnesota and the headlines don’t call it terrorism, is it still terrorism? Yes. And yet acts of terrorism in the United States get little attention from the media unless they’ve been perpetrated by or can be attributed to Muslim attackers.”
  • Oct. 27, 2017 – Hate in the ranks – “According to a new poll, one-in-four US troops say they have seen examples of white nationalism among fellow service members, and they rate white nationalism a greater national security threat than Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
  • Nov. 2, 2017 – What the terrorists believe – “Jihadist attacks and the fears they generate dominate both the news cycle and the popular imagination, as this week’s deadly incident in Manhattan reminds us. But the START report makes clear that events like this are far from the only, or even the main, story.”
  • Jan. 18, 2018 – There’s honest threat analysis, and then there’s that DHS report – “Two new, high-profile reports on terrorism in the United States were released this week. One was incredibly dishonest. Of course that’s the one President Trump tweeted about … The other, released yesterday by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that in 2017, domestic right-wing  extremists, primarily white supremacists, were responsible for twice as many fatalities — 56 percent of the total — compared to domestic Islamist extremists who accounted for 26 percent.”
  • Jan. 31, 2018 – Red-blooded American terrorists – “Atomwaffen openly flaunts its Nazi affinities, from its use of swastikas and SS runes in its propaganda and recruiting materials to its German name, which translated means ‘Atomic Weapons Division.’ They advocate both race war and national socialist revolution against the United States.”
  • Feb. 17, 2018 – Parkland looks like terrorism – “The Anti-Defamation League reports that the leader of the white supremacist Republic of Florida has acknowledged that the accused shooter in yesterday’s mass killing at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was associated with his group.”
  • March 14, 2018 – Another typical American terrorist – “Last August, a mosque in Minnesota was bombed. Yesterday, three men from a rural central Illinois town were charged with carrying out the attack, which, according to the FBI, was intended to frighten Muslims in to fleeing the United States. This, my friends, is the very definition of terrorism.”
  • April 19, 2018 – Those Kansas terrorists? Convicted – “Three members of a Kansas terrorist cell have been convicted of plotting to carry out a car bomb attack on an apartment complex in the small town of Garden City. You remember these guys — angry, middle-aged, white, Christian, men — and the Somali immigrants who were their intended targets.”
  • Oct. 24, 2018 – The president lit the fuse – “Since Monday a series of  pipe bombs have been mailed or delivered to a particular group of Democratic and liberal political figures … But more importantly, all of the targets share something else in common. Each has been critical of the current administration, and each has been repeatedly and publicly attacked by President Donald Trump, either at his rallies, or via Twitter, or both.”