Tina Huang in an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Five months, three countries, one hundred and seventy-six dead. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has left a trail of carnage in the Western hemisphere (as well as tens of thousands of victims in the Middle East and North Africa). Subsequently, 51 percent of Americans fear that they or a family member will be killed in a terror attack. This level of fear among Americans is nearly equivalent to that experienced after 9/11, when 2,699 Americans died. The tragedy of 9/11 and more recent Islamic extremism attacks are also correlated with a rise of anti-Islamic hate crimes, which have more than doubled since 2008.
Americans’ fear of Islamic extremist attacks is partially grounded in evidence. Since 9/11, although there have been no foreign-directed attacks on the homeland, domestic Islamic terrorists have killed forty-five Americans. Additionally, the number of U.S. citizens engaging in Islamic extremist activities has risen 180 percent since 2014.
Meanwhile, right wing radicals—including anti-government and anti-abortion extremists—were responsible for 87 percent of domestic attacks between 2006 and 2015. These groups have carried out nine more attacks and killed three more Americans than Islamic extremists since 9/11. This data suggests that the threat posed by domestic Islamic extremists is less than that from domestic right wing radicals.
How the media and politicians portray these groups explains why Americans are more fearful of Islamic extremists. Between 2008 and 2012, 81 percent of mentions of domestic terrorism on eight prominent cable programs were identified as Muslims. However, during this period, only one of sixty-four domestic attacks was confirmed to be carried out by an Islamic extremist, and it yielded no fatalities.
Furthermore, the media is reluctant to report right wing extremism as terrorism, but quickly categorizes an Islamic extremist attack as such. The San Bernardino shooting carried out by an Islamic State-inspired couple, which killed fourteen, was reported by PBS and the Washington Post as an “act of terrorism.” Just days prior, both outlets covered the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting carried out by an anti-abortion extremist, which killed three. Their headlines questioned whether the attack could even be referred to as domestic terrorism and debated when a shooting should be labeled “terrorism.” Following the Planned Parenthood shooting, Peter Bergen of New America Foundation argued that it is difficult to label an attack as terrorism if the perpetrators are not acting on behalf of a U.S.-recognized terrorist organization. While the FBI recognizes right wing extremism as a threat, it lacks an official list of domestic terrorist organizations, similar to the Department of State’s list of foreign groups. Others have questioned what defines terrorism and whether lone wolves fall into that category.
The perceived threat of Islamic extremism has also been exacerbated by politicians. For instance, former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) responded to the Brussels attack with a Facebook post reading, “They–we–are all part of an intolerable culture that they have vowed to destroy…Our country is at stake.” Cruz’s language implies that Islamic extremists are the most formidable threat to the existence of the United States. Furthermore, twenty-four of the twenty-eight 2016 presidential debates mentioned the threat of the Islamic State. Not one acknowledged the threat of right wing radicals or solicited candidates’ plans to protect Americans from these individuals, even after the Planned Parenthood shooting. These statements by politicians and skewed media attention have led Americans to believe that the Islamic State is the greatest threat in the world, and subsequently have obfuscated the threat of right wing radicals.
It is difficult to conclude whether Americans’ fear of Islamic extremists, and lack thereof for right wing radicals, is justified. In truth, neither group has posed a significant or grave threat to Americans. An American is more likely to be killed by a lightning strike, car accident, or toddler than by a domestic extremist, whether they be Islamic or far right wing. This overinflated and manufactured fear of Islamic extremists poses a threat to national security, which has resulted in an inaccurate prioritization of U.S. domestic and foreign policy concerns.