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What Is the Real Terrorist Threat in America?

August 10, 2012 |
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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.

There was William Krar, for example, a militia activist who had stored “enough chemicals to produce a quantity of hydrogen cyanide gas that could kill thousands, along with more than one hundred weapons, nearly one hundred thousand rounds of ammunition and more than one hundred pounds of explosives.”

Why do these statistics seem so poorly publicized? Is the media a symptom of this problem or a cause? Why, to choose only the most recent indicator, would the Times fail to place on the front page any enterprise story about Oak Creek Wednesday morning, only the second day after the shooter’s racist background became known? (The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times did put massacre stories on A-1.) It is not hard to imagine the floodtide of sidebar stories and the legions of reporters summoned off the campaign or home from vacation by now if Page had been a converted Muslim and the sanctuary he attacked were in a Christian church.

A pattern of terrorism that is repetitive, rising in ambition, and neglected by the public can signal a coming strategic surprise—this was true of Al Qaeda during the late nineteen-nineties, and it looks to be true of domestic racist terrorism today.

Terrorism is political violence that acquires its greatest power when it unnerves a targeted population. At conferences in Washington these days, panelists routinely discuss the possibility of Al Qaeda’s “strategic defeat,” because of the recent decimation of its leadership and its diminished capacity to carry out sophisticated attacks against the United States.

Yet such a defeat would also require Americans and their elected representatives to understand and speak accurately in public about the true dimensions of terrorism—to describe the violence in its real proportions, and to recognize the Oak Creek shooting’s links to right-wing and racist terrorism that is every bit as potent at home these days as Al Qaeda and its followers are, if not more so. That clarity—that victory—seems a long way off.