Does America Have Its Own Terrorists and Extremists?

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Fox News is the media outlet that brought you “It’s time for an ‘American jihad‘” and inaccurate claims about “No-go Zones” in Europe. Earlier this year, it made a rather monumental error, claiming that “Reports say radical Muslim jihadists killed thousands of people in the past few months alone. And yet when you take Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism — whatever — their combined killings in the name of religion? Well that number would be zero.”

Now, anyone with a semi-broad worldview or any historical background at all can attest that this is a falsehood. The speaker, Fox’s Eric Bolling, was actually responding to President Barack Obama’s mention of a perfect example: the Crusades. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” said Obama.

But these are hardly the only examples. Conflict and violence in Ireland may not have been solely religiously motivated, but there were Protestant versus Catholic tensions involved in horrible acts as well as ethnic and nationalistic motivations. In America, there are certainly fundamental Christian groups who consider themselves the soldiers of God. Putting all of this aside, because the arguments could go on for pages, it’s worth examining the intent of Obama’s statement: to contextualize the extremism in the Middle East with that of the rest of the world. To avoid making Muslims the sole target of that critique and perception.

Global terrorism is not a new danger in the 21st century; it’s been happening for a long time on a global scale — and none know it better than the employees at START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism. The group has been collecting information on terrorist attacks since 1970, eventually moving forward to analysis and research on attacks and extremism in general, as well as how radicalization occurs and how regional issues break down.

How does extremism in America break down by groups?

According to a study from START, extremism in the United States falls into Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 10.14.10 AM

What do individuals have in common across belief systems? What has been shown to be different in how extremism develops?

This is a particularly interesting result of the analysis, in that it shows what commonalities exist between an Islamic extremist motivated by religion and a far right extremist motivated, for example, by gun rights, or a far left perpetrator for, say, environmental motivations. “Radicalization appears to be a very social phenomenon, regardless of ideology,” reads the report. A group of people with strong beliefs and feelings on any topic can push each other to violent acts with or without religious motivation.

“Approximately half of the individuals in the dataset belonged to a clique,” stated START, and “there was little significant difference among ideologies in the prevalence of psychological issues, loners, and a loss of standing. However, all of these elements were more common among violent individuals.” According to the report, this means that “individuals that demonstrate these risk factors are equally predisposed to violence regardless of their ideological background.” It often takes a certain type of person with a certain background to commit violent extremist acts, not simply a religious motivation. So when President Obama said that violence, like that seen from Muslim extremists, “is not unique to one group or one religion,” but is “a tendency in us” as human beings, there’s data to back it up. Of course, there are also distinct differences between groups. For example, Islamist extremists are more likely to have been recruited into isolated extremist groups.

Left and right radicals were more competitive between groups, less isolated. Between the two, right-wing radicals had greater extremist longevity, whereas left-wing radicals often showed “a change in performance” before becoming radical more so than other groups.

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