Charleston shooting puts focus on the rising fringe

Charleston shooting puts focus on the rising fringe
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The shooting at a black church in South Carolina is raising new concerns about domestic terrorism, a threat that some say has been given short shrift by the government.

While Islamic terrorists have overshadowed anti-government militias and white supremacists since the 9/11 attacks, the groups have actually grown more active in recent years, according to experts.

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Some critics — including civil rights advocates and even comedian Jon Stewart —say there is a troubling double standard when it comes to acts of violence.

The Wednesday evening massacre in Charleston, S.C. is part of what analysts say is a persistent increase in racist and anti-government violence in the Bush and Obama administrations. Many fear the church attack, which authorities say was racially motivated, will inspire imitators.

“On a number of levels, this case does fit a kind of trend in the United States that I think if you’re studying this, you find it worrisome,” said Gary LaFree, a professor of criminal justice and director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

The man accused of opening fire at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday evening, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, appeared to harbor white supremacist beliefs. After his arrest on Thursday, he reportedly told law enforcement officials that he hoped to spark a race war.

The Justice Department has labeled the shooting a hate crime, and on Friday said that it was viewing it as an act of domestic terrorism.

“By any reasonable standard, this is terrorism,” terrorism experts Peter Bergen and David Sterman, of the New America Foundation, wrote in an op-ed for CNN. 

The law defines domestic terrorism as violent, illegal acts that occur within the U.S. that are intended to “intimidate or coerce” people, “influence the policy of a government” or “affect the conduct of a government."

The head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: Gun control debate 'hasn't changed much at all' back home GOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation FBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime MORE (R-Wis.), called the Charleston gunman a “terrorist" on Friday. White House hopeful Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies Bernie Sanders Adviser talks criminal justice reform proposal, 'Medicare for All' plan Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona MORE (I-Vt.) also called the shooting an “act of terror.”

But some critics worry that the government is losing sight of the white supremacist ideology behind Wednesday’s shooting, while raising constant alarms about Islamic extremism.

“What blows my mind is the disparity of response between when we think people that are foreign are going to kill us, and us killing ourselves,” said Stewart in an emotional “Daily Show” monologue on Thursday evening. 

Nearly twice as many Americans have been killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and anti-government extremists than by jihadists in the years since 9/11, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. Including the Charleston shooting, 48 people have been killed by domestic extremists, compared to 26 who have died in violence linked to Islamic extremism. 

In 2012, for instance, a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., left seven people dead, including the gunman. Last year, a married couple seeing to start a "revolution" killed two police officers, a third person and then themselves in Las Vegas.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attack “was such an influential event in U.S. history that we tend to think of that as the stereotypical terrorist attack," said LaFree, whose group compiles its own data about terrorism. "But in our data for example, I think it’s the case that probably more people have been killed in the United States by right-wing groups than by Islamist groups since 9/11.” 

Those terrorists tend to focus especial attention on police officers, he said, and have a tendency to be “lone wolves.”

Last summer, a survey of law enforcement officers published by LeFree’s consortium found that one strain of anti-government extremists, known as “sovereign citizens,” were their biggest concern. Islamic extremism came in second.

Critics of the government say that it has been too focused on the rise of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has actively sought to inspire homegrown terrorism in the U.S.

“Domestic terrorism is a serious problem in the country,” Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, told The Hill.  “Domestic terrorism of this sort, coming from white people, needs to be a priority for the federal government — not just Islamic extremism.”

The government hasn’t been taking it seriously enough, Beirich and other critics argue.

For instance, a three-day White House summit on tactics for countering violent extremism virtually ignored non-jihadist violence, opponents maintained.

In Congress, lawmakers have held more than a half-dozen hearings on threats posed by ISIS and other Islamic extremists this year, but haven’t focused at all on any other type of homegrown violence.

“There’s virtually no interest or political willpower to even look at this,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security who authored a controversial memo warning about a resurgence of domestic extremists in 2009.

After Johnson’s report caused an uproar among conservatives, critics allege that the Obama administration gutted a terrorism unit that focuses on militia groups and other extremists.

Johnson left the government in 2010 and is now the owner of DT Analytics, a consulting firm.

“If you keep dismissing these acts as not terrorism ... then you don’t get a clear picture of what’s really the problem,” he said. “By designating it terrorism, then we can start connecting the dots and start establishing a pattern and realize the magnitude of the problem.”