Whose Violence?

In the US and around the world today, political violence is the hallmark of the Right, not the Left.

A far-right demonstrator during protests in Berkeley, California, in May, which saw right-wing demonstrators attack leftists in the streets. Adam Cohn / Flickr

After yesterday’s horrific attack in Washington, DC, political violence has once again come under the national spotlight. In this case, with the gunman revealed as a Bernie Sanders supporter, the Left has comes under scrutiny from conservatives and the center.

Although Sanders was quick to denounce the action in the strongest terms possible, New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor published a piece linking the gunman’s actions to what she calls the “belligerent reputation” of Sanders’s supporters during the Democratic primaries, as well as the rhetoric of the Left more generally.

The shooting, she writes, “put a new spotlight on the rage buried in some corners of the progressive left,” pointing to anti-Trump messages posted by the killer on Facebook. She further linked the killer’s own rhetoric to Sanders, citing examples of Sanders calling Trump “the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country” and referring to the “extreme right-wing leadership in the US House and the US Senate.”

This line of argument is, of course, extremely spurious. Using one lonely incident to extrapolate a wider trend is obviously questionable. Moreover, Alcindor bases much of her argument on the contested idea of a particularly toxic “Bernie Bro” culture. While there’s no doubt Sanders supporters could be combative or even aggressive online, there’s little proof this was different from the behavior of a certain selection of die-hard supporters of any other candidate on the Internet. As Adam Johnson pointed out, one study found Clinton’s supporters were perceived as much more aggressive online than Sanders’. It also wasn’t exactly hard to find anecdotal evidence of Clinton supporters being aggressive, racist and sexist online, not to mention Trump supporters doing the same.

Moreover, the kind of anti-Trump rhetoric used by Sanders and the shooter are as much the domain of centrists and even some on the soft right as progressives and those further left. Furthermore, Alcindor neglects to mention the murderer’s history of domestic violence, or even his belief in the mainstream and widely advanced idea of Trump as a “traitor.”

But Alcindor was not the only one. After a presidential campaign that saw the Republican standard-bearer launch verbal attack after verbal attack on Muslims, Mexicans, women, journalists, and others, sometimes explicitly calling for violence against individuals — calls that there were sometimes acted on by his supporters — the Right has unsurprisingly jumped on this incident as evidence that violence is a uniquely left-wing problem.

Former Trump right-hand man Roger Stone charged, “This is the climate of hate generated by the MSM and egged on by LibDems hath wrought.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that “Democrats’ dangerous rhetoric contributed” to the shooting. Conservative writer David Horowitz agreed: “Democrat hate speech has consequences.” It was “part of a pattern” of “increasing intensity of hostility on the Left,” said Newt Gingrich. Ann Coulter sent out a link to a website claiming that “Leftists [are] In Denial About The Shooting They Inspired.” “The violence is appearing in the streets, and it’s coming from the Left,” claimed Rep. Steve King.

These claims are not new. Conservatives have long been arguing that the rise of political violence is, if not entirely a problem of the Left, at the very least coming from both sides of the spectrum. They would point to incidents like yesterday’s shooting, the various protests that turned violent in Berkeley over the last few months, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched, or Kathy Griffin’s photoshoot involving a fake severed Trump head as examples of the broad left’s turn to unacceptable violence.

But even if one were to allow these as examples, it’s become increasingly clear that around the world today the use of violence for political ends has been, and continues to be, overwhelmingly a feature of the Right.

A History of Violence

On May 20, a twenty-two-year-old “Alt-Reich Nation” member stabbed black US Army Lieutenant Richard Collins III to death. Two days later, Florida police found explosive and bomb-making materials in the home of a group of neo-Nazis who had, bizarrely, been killed by their roommate who had recently converted to Islam.

Four days after that, a white supremacist in Portland killed two men and stabbed another after they tried to intervene as he embarked on a racist tirade on a commuter train. Less than two weeks ago, Michael Treiman, the only Democratic candidate running for the mayor of Binghamton, New York, pulled out of the race after receiving death threats referencing his wife and children.

Other high-profile incidents include:

  • The former army veteran who killed a sixty-six-year old black man in March because he was black, to “make a statement” and as a “practice run” for a larger attack.
  • The white supremacist who planned a murder “in the spirit of Dylann Roof,” another white supremacist terrorist who had killed nine black churchgoers in June 2015 (one of whom was a state senator).
  • Hundreds of threatening phone calls, emails, voicemails, and other types of messages from neo-Nazis in the Montana town of Whitefish, where Richard Spencer hails from, directed at a Jewish woman.
  • The white supremacist who tried to stab a black man in Houston.
  • The Kansas man who shot two Indian men in February, believing they were Middle Eastern and shouting racist epithets at them.
  • The masked, white man who shot a Sikh man while telling him to “go back to your own country.”

Those are just incidents that took place in the United States, and only since January. They come on top of the 1,400 hate crime incidents that were recorded between the election and March 23, a number that’s almost certainly increased since then.

This was happening even before Trump’s election. There were several incidents of racially motivated violence during the campaign where the attackers specifically cited Trump. In October, three men were arrested who had planned to blow up an apartment complex in Kansas occupied by 120 Somali Muslim immigrants on the day of the election.

Incidents of far-right terror have no doubt increased with Trump’s election, but you don’t have to look far to see they’ve been happening at a steady tick for many years. There were the murders committed by Dylann Roof in 2015. There was the foiled Bowling Green massacre — not the one made up by Kelly Anne Conway a few months ago, but the one where a white supremacist planned to go on a murderous rampage of African Americans and Jews. There was the burning down of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, and the shooting of six people in a Sikh temple, both in 2012 and only a few days apart.

And this is just a small list of the dozens of incidents of right-wing terror that have taken place since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, itself an act of terrorism by a white supremacist. A 2015 survey of 382 law enforcement agencies ranked anti-government extremism among the top three threats in their jurisdiction.

The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that right-wing extremists have plotted at least 150 terrorist acts in the United States over the last twenty-five years, killing or injuring more than eight hundred people. An earlier ADL report found right-wing extremists were responsible for 74 percent of the 372 people killed in domestic terror attacks between 2007 and 2016. This was backed up by a study put out by the New America Foundation one year earlier.

These actions are often egged on by the violent rhetoric of the “mainstream” right.

Rep. Clay Higgins recently urged people to “Hunt [Islamic terrorist suspects], identify them, and kill them. Kill them all.” This comes after a GOP primary season where Ted Cruz, the supposedly moderate alternative to Trump, promised to revive the use of carpet bombing and ran a Willie Horton-esque campaign ad about a man killed by an undocumented immigrant.

One gunman wanted to start a right-wing revolution in 2010 by killing “people of importance” at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation, a small San Francisco non-profit that Glenn Beck had been railing against for months. The man told a journalist that Beck — who called himself a “progressive hunter” and warned that America was being subverted from within by left-wing enemies — “blew [his] mind” with the things he exposed.

It’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence that far-right militia groups began proliferating at the same time that GOP politicians and conservative personalities were claiming Obama was a sinister, alien threat, and even a terrorist, bent on undermining American values.

We’ve Been Warned

Of course, many on the Right would probably tell you that these far-right extremists and their ideology have little do with mainstream conservatives and their beliefs. But if so, one has to wonder why then GOP leaders and conservative media harshly criticized the usually sacrosanct Department of Homeland Security in 2009 after it put out a report warning about the threat of right-wing extremists.

Michelle Malkin called it a “piece of crap report” that purposefully “echoes Tea Party-bashing left-wing blogs … and demonizes the very Americans who will be protesting in the thousands on Wednesday for the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party.” John Boehner, then the House Minority Leader, raged that DHS owed the public an explanation as to why they were labelling “American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation” as terrorists. A variety of conservative groups denounced it as an attack on Christians and veterans.

DHS didn’t just retract the report (which had been written by a self-identified conservative) — under pressure from the Right, it sharply curtailed its work on domestic extremism.

To summarize, the government put out a report warning about the dangers of far-right extremism, the mainstream right subsequently identified their own ideology with this same extremism, then the Right successfully pressured the government to stop investigating this kind of terrorism.

The violence of the far right isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon. It was only at the end of January, after all, that a man in Quebec killed six and injured nineteen people in a mosque.

Meanwhile, the UK has seen its fair share of political violence in connection with the Brexit referendum. Last year, a white supremacist killed Brexit-opposing Labour MP Jo Cox while shouting “Britain first,” the name of a far-right British political group, and allegedly telling police he was a political activist. In court, he declared that his name was “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Similar to the United States, this violence was buttressed by the rhetoric of the mainstream right. The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination accused British politicians of just that, saying the Brexit campaign had been “marked by divisive, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic rhetoric.” (You can download the report here). Its report stated that politicians and high-profile political figures had not only failed to condemn this rhetoric, but “created and entrenched prejudices, thereby emboldening individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate towards ethnic or ethno-religious minority communities and people who are visibly different.”

And it continues. Right-wing British troll Katie Hopkins, who had earlier called immigrants “cockroaches” and called for gunships to stop refugees, recently called for a “final solution” following the attack in Manchester in a (subsequently deleted) tweet.

While Sweden has become a made-up fantasyland of immigrant terrorism and anti-white hatred in right-wing circles, this rhetoric obscures the very real rise of right-wing violence in the country. A spate of arsons targeted Swedish asylum centers in 2015, attacks which have continued, including as late as February this year when the country’s largest refugee center was set ablaze in a suspected arson. Last year saw 112 fires at refugee and reception centers. Similarly, 2014 saw attacks on three mosques in a single week, while the country’s largest Shia mosque was partially burned down barely more than a month ago.

All the while, members of Sweden’s far right have attacked people celebrating International Women’s Day and those who they suspect of being asylum seekers. A man who killed a teacher and a pupil at a school with a sword was an anti-immigrant xenophobe, and the men recently arrested bombing asylum centers also targeted a left-wing bookshop. Anti-African racism has been on the rise, with the UN reporting that reported hate crimes rose by 41 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Germany has similarly seen years of increasing right-wing violence, typically directed at refugees and asylum seekers, including more than 3,500 attacks in 2016 alone. According to Germany’s own security services, a little less than half of all known right-wing extremists in the country are prone to violence.

At the same time, neo-Nazis have infiltrated the German army, three of whom were recently arrested in a plot to kill senior members of the German government and blame the murders on asylum seekers. (There are shades here of recent revelations that white supremacists have infiltrated various US police departments).

And the worst terror attack that happened in Scandinavia was carried out by far right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik.

Conservatives — and, it now appears, the mainstream press — love to complain about the “intolerant Left.” But only one side of the political spectrum has been engaged in consistent, sustained, politically motivated violence for the last two decades.