The Roots of Domestic Terrorism

In the wake of two horrifying events, the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado and the white supremacist attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Steve Coll looks at the patterns to be found in the post-9/11 domestic terrorism cases. Despite public perception, very few have been from Muslims:

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AUGUST 9, 2012

WHAT IS THE REAL TERRORIST THREAT IN AMERICA?

Posted by Steve Coll

Satwant Kaleka, who served as president of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, arrived in the United States from India three decades ago with thirty-five dollars in savings. By last Sunday, he owned several gas stations, according to the Los Angeles Times. He turned up early that morning at his temple to oversee worship and preparations for a large birthday party.

Wade Michael Page, a former bassist and guitarist in a white-supremacist rock band, drove to Oak Creek just after 10:15 A.M. He pulled out a pistol and shot worshipers remorselessly. An eleven-year-old-boy, Abhay Singh, watched him shoot one victim seven or eight times.

Kaleka tried to tackle the gunman. Page shot him, too; Kaleka dragged himself away, but he bled to death. He was sixty-two years old.

Sikhs in the greater Milwaukee area face discrimination “on a daily basis” because of the visible markers of their faith, such as the turbans that believing Sikh men tie on, Kaleka’s brother said later, and yet Kaleka held onto a belief in an “American freedom dream.”

Page’s other five victims were all immigrants to the United States from India’s Punjab province, where there is a large Sikh population. Among them were Suveg Singh Khattra, an eighty-four-year-old farmer who came to the U.S. to live with his son, and Paramjit Kaur, who worked more than sixty-five hours a week at a Wisconsin medical-instrument factory; she was the mother of two college-age sons.

There is no hierarchy of hate crime or racist terrorism, but Page’s massacre has a distinctive, sickening quality, set amid ignorance and reflecting a pattern of underpublicized bias of a sort that is often directed at the smallest of minority groups.

It’s not clear whether the shooter, like some Americans who have violently attacked Sikhs before, mistakenly believed that his victims were Muslims. In any event, the outrage would be the same if Page had shot up a mosque. The killer seemed to hate all brown people, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Yet the mass murder at Oak Creek took place in a context of persistent discrimination against Sikhs. During the months and years after September 11, 2001, Sikhs have been attacked and in at least one instance murdered by vigilantes who mistook them for members of the Taliban. Nor is this bias only a fringe problem of skinheads. At American airports, it is the policy of the Transportation Security Administration to always single out turban-wearing Sikh men for secondary screening and pat downs, no matter the traveller’s age or profile. (Turbans can in theory hide explosives, as suicide bombers in Afghanistan have demonstrated, but the procedures and explanations of the T.S.A. about its rules, as described by the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy and education group, suggest a blanket policy that would not likely be applied to a religious group with a higher profile and more numerous advocates.)

The Oak Creek murders reflect upon another neglected subject: the surprising pattern of terrorism in America since September 11th. In partnership with a team of researchers at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy, some of my colleagues at the New America Foundation collated and analyzed three hundred and two cases of domestic terrorism during the decade after the September 11th attacks. The numbers do not correspond with the public’s fear or understanding.

The entire decade-long domestic death toll from terrorism (that is, where a political or ideological motive was apparent) was thirty. By comparison, the rate of annual deaths from mass shootings by non-ideological deranged killers—such as the gunman who attacked moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, last month—runs more than thirty times higher (on average, about a hundred deaths each year). In all, there are about fifteen thousand murders in America each year.

Of the three hundred domestic-terrorism cases studied, about a quarter arose from anti-government extremists, white supremacists, or terrorists animated by bias against another religion. And all of the most frightening cases—involving chemical, biological, and radiological materials—arose from right-wing extremists or anarchists. None arose from Islamist militancy.

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