The recent wave of right-wing sectarian attacks in America should not surprise us; it was always lurking beneath the surface, unchallenged and allowed to fester. Under Trump, it's out in the open.

After the deadly events that took place at the Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, ending the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers and injuring six others during Shabbat prayers on October 27, many have been trying to understand how such a crime could be committed. 

With the shots of the semi-automatic weapon still echoing, many have begun to state that this marks the rise of right-wing terror in the United States.

While some are still hesitant, there have been a number of media outlets identifying this act as right-wing terrorism, or extremism, revealing the senseless ideology of the man behind the attack, Robert Bowers, 46.

Reports surfaced of how the man was a frequent user of social media platform Gab, which is known to be popular amongst right-wing extremists. Before the platform removed his account, many have cited that he stated: “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” It is clear from his own rhetoric that his actions were fuelled by white supremacist, far-right extremist beliefs.

However, what is alarming is the shockwave it sent through the American community. And the reluctance of some to highlight this as terrorism, labelling it as a hate crime instead. This disbelief and outrage is causing authorities to be relentless against the accused. Bowers has 29 criminal charges against him, pushing the US Attorney, Scott Brady, to pursue the death penalty.

But this phenomenon is not new; it is just the first time in recent history that it has taken precedence over religious (‘Islamic’) extremism. Prior to the 9/11 attacks in the US, the most violent attacks were executed by far-right, or white supremacist extremism. 

This phenomenon has already been academically assessed. While experts worldwide attempted to understand the psychology of the radicalised Muslim, it was not until recently that they decided to study the contemporary psychology of a far-right terrorist.

One study, published in 2017, concluded that driving factors include, “economic grievances, particularly those produced by economic restructuring;” and, perhaps most interestingly, “societal changes that challenge notions of white male privilege; and political and public policy elements that stoke resentments”.

To put this into perspective, the study stated: “Since 1970, domestic right wing terrorists have committed more than 500 attacks in the USA. 

Although this comprises only about a quarter of all terrorist attacks on US soil—and is only half the number committed by domestic left-wing terrorists—right-wing terrorism has resulted in more deaths than any other type of domestic terrorist activity.

“Over the period 1970–2011, out of 471 people killed in domestic terrorist attacks in the USA, 244 were killed by right-wing terrorists.”

This implies that while left-wing violence has historically existed, it has not taken as many lives as the violence of right-wing extremists.

Another study published by the Anti-Defamation League states: “For over a century and a half, since ´burning Kansas´ of the 1850s and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1860s, right-wing terrorism has been an unwelcome feature of the American landscape. Yet today, many people are barely aware that it exists and most people don’t recognise its frequency or scope.”

The study then isolates the different categories of terror attacks in the US between 1993-2017 and argues that of the right-wing terror incidents (until 2017) in the United States “fall into one of two broad umbrella movements or spheres: white supremacists and anti-government extremists”.

While some in the US government were informed of this threat as far back as 2009, no preventative measures have been put in place, and counter-radicalisation measures that have been implemented have almost been tailored to ‘Islamic’ terrorism.

Prior to 9/11, the most destructive act of domestic terror took place in Oklahoma by a right-wing terrorist. FBI archives state: “On the morning of April 19, 1995, an ex-Army soldier and security guard named Timothy McVeigh parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

“He was about to commit mass murder. Inside the vehicle was a powerful bomb made out of a deadly cocktail of agricultural fertiliser, diesel fuel, and other chemicals. McVeigh got out, locked the door, and headed towards his getaway car. He ignited one timed fuse, then another. At precisely 9:02 a.m., the bomb exploded.”

With a longstanding and continuously problematic presence in society, far-right and white supremacist extremists have long existed and, if no action is taken, will continue to exist and commit random, independent, catastrophic attacks.

This attack is particularly problematic because it could have been avoided. The nature of the attacks in general has thus far been frightening primarily through their unpredictability and the level of hatred required to independently decide to commit mass murder. 

The terrorists generally work individually without a group and thus are more difficult to identify, disregarding the obvious privilege of innocence until proven guilty that is given to a white male.

The current atmosphere in the United States is enabling too many individuals with skewed ideologies. It is most important to understand that, as is the case with most terrorist actions, they are of the individual and thus the factors driving this individual to such a crime must be assessed first.

Rather than stigmatise a certain group as more prone to violent behaviour, it may prove beneficial to study and strategise around the radicalisation process itself, which is similar along the ideological spectrum. Thus approaching this phenomenon psychologically rather than sociologically may be beneficial.

Through identifying how a person not only moves from radical thought to radical action but also what enabling environmental factors exist, the next attack may be one we can prevent.

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