Right now, the threat to ordinary Americans from homegrown terrorists, radicalized by racist and nativist conspiracies they read on the Internet, is significantly higher than the threat from Islamist terrorists, radicalized by jihadist conspiracies they read on the Internet. But as a nation, we aren’t going to admit it, and we aren’t going to stop it.
Look at the numbers. Over the past decade, domestic terrorism inspired by racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic or white-supremacist views has skyrocketed, while other forms of terrorism are falling. Of the 65 attacks on gay bars, mosques and black churches committed during 2017, 37 of them — more than half — were perpetrated in the name of far-right extremism. Only seven were inspired by Islamist extremism. That tally doesn’t even include the far more numerous school shooters and random murderers inspired by the gun culture, which is also deeply connected to the conspiratorial thinking promoted on far-right and alt-right websites.
Why don’t we fight back? Because the costs are far too high, and the political obstacles far too powerful. In order to fight jihadist extremism, we went to the source. We tracked down al-Qaeda operatives all over the world. We invaded Afghanistan. We created anti-extremist teams who took down jihadist propaganda on the Internet. We sent FBI agents to track jihadist activists across the country.
What would happen if we were to follow the same policies for far-right extremism? Robert Bowers, who allegedly murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, was radicalized by the belief that Jewish organizations are conniving to bring immigrants into the United States in order to eradicate native populations: His last Internet post cited a Jewish charity he claimed was aiding “invaders.” Neatly and easily, this myth links anti-Semitism, racism, demographic panic and white supremacist grievance into a single story. No wonder it has so much power.
As it happens, this particular myth has a specific, traceable origin. It was developed in Hungary, as a political tool to aid in the reelection of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister. His election propaganda focused on billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who, Orban alleged, was conniving to bring immigrants to Europe in order to eradicate native populations. From Hungary this myth spread to other far-right and alt-right parties and sects in Europe and the United States. It has been repeated, to pick a few random examples, by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), cartoonist Ben Garrison and a Campbell Soup executive who has since left the company. But you can find many, many versions of it online if you look.
If we were serious about halting the propagation of this myth, which has just inspired a serious act of terrorism, we should — using the jihadist analogy — scrutinize known believers in this myth at the borders, and refuse them entry. We should use the FBI to identify and track down the many followers of this myth inside the country, and examine the places where they gather online, such as the Breitbart comment section or any one of a million Facebook pages. But of course we aren’t going to do any of that at all.
Nor are we going to fight back against the even more overwhelming anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic rhetoric that doesn’t have such a specific, traceable origin. We aren’t going to crack down on the people who created the hateful websites and Internet posts that inspired Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church. We aren’t going to talk about the general atmosphere in which these kinds of ideas exist, the climate of tolerance for milder forms of racism or xenophobia, because their symbols are familiar, American symbols. The Confederate flag, for example.
In its way, the danger that the United States faces from far-right extremism is much greater than the danger from jihadist extremism, because it is an ideology that comes from within American and, more generally, Western societies. It has deep roots in our own culture; it is not identifiably “foreign,” as is militant Islam. Inside the United States, its adherents speak English, not Arabic. Its milder forms are well within the realm of what we consider to be politically acceptable. We hear them every day, from the White House, in Congress, on Fox News.
For all of these reasons, there is no military or foreign policy solution to this form of domestic extremist terrorism, and there won’t be; there isn’t even a real role for the FBI. The only conceivable solutions might lie in some combination of education, gun control and Internet regulation — although under this president, and with this Republican Party running Congress, these aren’t going to happen either. If we can’t vote them out, there is no solution at all. Like Afghans or Lebanese, we will just have to learn to live with terrorism, to become numb to it — to adjust.