2018-05-14 16:48:42 UTC
Kohn: Since 9/11, right-wing extremists killed more Americans than
The cold-blooded killing of a dozen people at the offices of
Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly in Paris, has inflamed the
debate over the ties between Islam and extremist violence. The
gunmens motive is hardly in doubt. A video captured one of them
shouting "Allahu Akbar!", or "God is great" in Arabic.
Liberal pundit Sally Kohn waded into the firestorm on Twitter. At
one point, seeing what she called "repeated condemnation of Islam
as a whole," Kohn wrote, "Since 9/11, right-wing extremists (incl
anti-abortion, anti-gov) have killed more Americans than Islamic
We decided to check Kohns numbers.
Kohns tweet linked to a CNN opinion piece that in turn was based
on data gathered by the New America Foundation, a Washington think
tank that promotes data-driven innovation to social and economic
By the New America count, in the time since 9/11, jihadists have
killed 26 Americans on U.S. soil, while those with right-wing
leanings have killed 39. The single-most deadly event by an
Islamic extremist was the 13 people killed at Fort Hood. On the
right-wing side of the ledger, the worst was the six people slain
at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.
The first thing to note is that Kohns tweet failed to specify
that the deaths took place in the United States. Kohn explained
that she counted on people to use the link in the tweet to fill in
that detail. We hunted around for a count of Americans -- aside
from military and such -- who were killed by terrorists while
overseas and came up dry.
Conservatives have challenged the New America tally. An article on
Breitbart charged that the analysis wrongly attributed some of the
killings to right-wing zealots when the ideological connection was
For example, in 2009, Joshua Cartwright shot and killed two police
officers in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Cartwright had beaten his wife
and then driven to a local shooting range. When two deputies found
him there, he shot them, fled, and was later killed in a shootout
Cartwrights ties to right-wing extremists? The sheriff said
Cartwright was interested in militia groups and thought the
government was conspiring against him. His wife said he held anti-
government views and was disturbed by the election of Barack
All told, the Breitbart article questioned enough deaths to tip
the count. In order to reach that point, however, it needed to add
in the 10 victims of John Allen Muhammad, the so-called Beltway
Sniper who terrorized the Washington metro area with his random
shootings in 2002. Muhammad attended a mosque in Seattle, but
financial setbacks and the loss of custody of his children seemed
to have triggered his killing spree.
Leave those deaths out of the equation for slayings on American
soil, and the edge, however slender, still goes to the right-wing
extremists. By our count, the Breitbart article came up three
For the record, this analysis deals only with fatalities even
though some of the Islamic-driven violence in this country, such
as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shootings, left
many with permanent, life-changing injuries.
No easy way to count
If this exercise shows nothing else, it is that the number of
post-9/11 deaths in the United States from either cause is low,
and drawing firm conclusions is dicey. A single event or a change
in definitions can shift the balance.
The matter of definitions makes a big difference because most of
the killers acted on their own. Experts in terrorist and extremist
violence told PunditFact that in these cases, it can be difficult
to draw the line between ideological and purely personal
Alex Schmid is a research fellow at the International Centre for
Counter-Terrorism in the Netherlands.
"Mental illness plays a role in up to 40 percent of the lone wolf
attacks," Schmid said. In contrast, he said most organized
terrorists are "clinically normal."
William Braniff at the National Consortium for the Study of
Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland
also said this is the most challenging part of any assessment.
Braniff said the best research approach is to include any violence
that might be tied to extremist beliefs. But also, be sure to
include enough details so others can separate the clear cases from
the murky ones.
"If I am a law enforcement official or a policymaker, I might want
to know if or how violent ideologies attract those who are
mentally unstable because ultimately, that suggests that more
resources ought to be directed to mental health interventions,"