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By David Sivak
As part of a segment last week on political violence, NPR interviewed a senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) who claimed right-wing extremists have committed 74 percent of murders carried out by domestic extremists in the last 10 years. He used this statistic as evidence that the country is undergoing a “predominantly far-right extremist cycle” of violence.
The senior fellow, Mark Pitcavage, cites a statistic that is likely correct but gives a false impression about domestic extremism by ignoring other data points that may undermine his claim.
In the wake of recent examples of left-wing violence, such as a number of Antifa protests and the politically motivated shooting of Republican lawmakers, NPR posed the question: “Is Left-Wing Violence Rising?”
Pitcavage told NPR that “the far left is very active in the United States, but it hasn’t been particularly violent for some time.”
“In the past 10 years when you look at murders committed by domestic extremists in the United States of all types, right-wing extremists are responsible for about 74 percent of those murders,” he said.
The statistic from the ADL, which looked at domestic extremism from 2007 to 2016, found about 275 murders at the hands of those who the ADL considers right-wing extremists. The ADL’s definition of right-wing extremists includes but is not limited to white supremacists, anti-government extremists and anti-abortion extremists.
ADL’s death count includes non-ideological murders committed by extremists, i.e. gang violence or other criminal activity that does not have a political or racial motive. “It is common for adherents of extremist movements to commit non-ideological acts of violence, which can range from killing a suspected informant to assassinating a rival to acts of violence stemming from traditional criminal motives, such as anger or greed,” says a 2016 ADL report.
The ADL admits the number of deaths may skew towards white supremacist crime because members of this ideological group sometimes sport distinctive tattoos or may be known to corrections officers, so non-ideological crimes by white supremacists are easier to spot. “It is fair to say that non-ideological murders committed by extremists other than white supremacists are probably underrepresented here,” the ADL report says.
The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to the ADL to assess the source data behind the “74 percent” statistic, but the ADL declined to provide the data. “We did not make the full data set public,” the communications team told TheDCNF.
Instead, TheDCNF conducted an independent analysis of domestic extremism for the same 10-year time frame. The analysis only includes instances where domestic extremists had a clear ideological motive.
The data from our analysis comes from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a university research center partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
Our findings support the ADL statistic. Using their definition of right-wing extremists, we found that 92 percent of ideologically motivated homicide incidents were committed with a right-wing extremist or white supremacist motive.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a somewhat similar analysis of domestic extremism since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and found that 73 percent of all domestic extremist incidents that resulted in death were perpetrated by so-called right-wing extremists.
The ADL statistic may well be accurate, but other statistics from START paint a more complicated picture.
Left-wing and environmental extremists committed around 69 percent of all extremist property attacks, which often involved acts of arson. Muslim extremists committed about 62 percent of all homegrown bombing incidents and 29 percent of all armed assaults by extremists. Besides homicide, right-wing extremists are responsible for around 48 percent of all armed assault incidents by extremists with a clear ideological motive.
In perspective, different extremist groups commit violence in different ways. Focusing on incidents of killings alone gives a misleading picture.
Data from START does not include foiled plots, which could distort the statistics on which extremist groups are the most violent. For example, the FBI arrested a permanent U.S. resident from Bangladesh in 2016 for an ISIS-inspired plot to kill a member of the U.S. military. In 2012, a white supremacist was arrested for possession of stockpiled weapons and explosives.
NPR reframes a conversation about violent protest into one that deals largely with white supremacy, homegrown Islamic extremism and environmental terrorism.
Within this broader context, Pitcavage’s statistic is likely accurate based on how the ADL defines different extremist groups, but no one statistic can show which political ideology commits more violence, as Pitcavage claims. His exclusion of other data points creates a false impression.