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Opinion | Beware the data on American right-wing violence

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America has a problem with right-wing political violence. You only need look at the footage of Jan. 6, 2021, to see that. Or white-supremacist killings such as the recent shooting in Buffalo. Or misogynist killers such as Elliot Rodger, who went on a rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014.

But just how big a problem is it? Bigger than other kinds of political violence? You might think the answer is clearly yes, but the data often cited to support this conclusion don’t say what most people think.

The aftermath of the Buffalo massacre saw a spate of articles describing the menace of right-wing extremists. The New York Times’s David Leonhardt characterizes it as “a violence problem that has no equivalent on the left.” You might even have glanced at the reports these articles often cite from the Anti-Defamation League. Over the past decade, the ADL has counted about 450 murders committed by domestic political extremists, with 29 occurring just last year. It reports the overwhelming majority were committed by people with ties to various right-wing groups.

Seems straightforward, right? Well, yes — until you look at the underlying data.

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The people citing these reports write about them as if they primarily document political violence — or “domestic terrorism,” as my own colleagues put it. That is to say, attacks that are motivated by someone’s political affiliation and at least tangentially related to some political goals.

Certainly such attacks do happen, and far too often. Just in the past year, Nathan Allen, allegedly a white supremacist, killed two Black people in Massachusetts before being shot by police officers; “manosphere” devotee Lyndon McLeod went on a shooting spree in Colorado; and Aidan Ingalls opened fire on the South Haven, Mich., pier using a gun decorated with swastikas.

But look closer and some of those cases aren’t as clear-cut as they sound in the gloss. McLeod appears to have killed people he knew from the local tattoo community for possibly unrelated personal grievances. Ingalls’s two random victims were White.

Drill down further into the data and you’ll find other cases are even less clearly political: prison gang members engaging in pedestrian criminal violence; white supremacists killing their wives; people with mental illness acting on elaborate delusions that sometimes include references to right-wing conspiracy theories; people embroiled in criminal trials or child custody disputes who have become enamored of “sovereign citizen” theories that tell them the state has no right to interfere.

I’m not cherry-picking a few ambiguous outliers; I’m arguably describing the majority of the incidents in the ADL’s 2021 report. Every one of these killings is a horrific tragedy. But it’s not clear they all have much to do with politics, as the ADL itself acknowledges.

“One of the most striking features of white supremacist murders is the large proportion of non-ideological killings to ideological killings,” the ADL wrote in its most recent report. “Over the past 10 years, only 86 of the 244 white supremacist killings (35%) were ideological murders.”

One reason for this confusion is that all prison gangs tend to be organized along racial lines, for complex sociological reasons, yet only the White gangs are coded as white-supremacist groups rather than criminal organizations. To be clear, that’s because they officially endorse vicious white-supremacist ideology. But many criminals with no particular racial animus join them for protection and go on to commit further crimes that are not really about race or even gang membership. Should we really code those crimes as being “associated” with right-wing extremism?

Moreover, those gangs produce easy visual signifiers, such as tattoos, often along with detailed prison records, so authorities are probably more likely to pick up such associations than, say, a fan of Islamic State videos who also happened to shoot his girlfriend. The ADL itself acknowledges that this effect could be skewing its data. The media might then magnify that reporting bias.

After all those reports on the threat of right-wing violence, any new case with a tenuous link to the alt-right or the Aryan Brotherhood seems like part of a trend meriting wall-to-wall coverage. Meanwhile, a Black man driving into a parade after making anti-White remarks on Facebook is seen as a sick individual. There’s some danger that this becomes the policy equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone: Media primed by nongovernmental-organization reports play up even glancing connections to racist or militia groups, which in turn guarantees that the next such report will feature a disproportionate share of cases coded as “right-wing violence.”

That’s not to say that right-wing violence isn’t a disproportionate threat compared with other ideologies. Indeed, given that Whites are the majority of American adults, and a lot of noxious ideologies are Whites-only, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. But saying that a thing is plausible is not the same as proving it is true — not even if someone hands you a number that seems to confirm all your worst suspicions.

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