Accuracy in Media

The Department of Homeland Security memo outlining the emerging “threat” of right-wing extremism has been heavily criticized over the last couple weeks for its vagueness and apparent attempt to ideologically profile individuals of conservative ideology.

The criticized DHS report stated in a footnote that “Right wing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration” (emphasis added).

Not merely a product of the Obama administration, the DHS has in fact been funding academic research on right-wing domestic extremism since at least 2005, and has expended over $370,000 on projects by two academics, including a database of “open-source data on non-violent and violent criminal behavior associated with far right-wing extremist groups” between 1990 and 2009.

In 2005 City University of New York (CUNY) Professor Joshua Freilich conducted “a systematic literature review on far-right extremism and measurement issues in terrorism related research” and in August 2007, he and Professor Steve Chermak of Michigan State University presented a research briefing to then-DHS Undersecretary Jay M. Cohen on the results of their first database.

Freilich’s interpretation of right-wing extremism, however, is far less politically charged than the DHS report, which was influenced by the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The domestic far-right is composed of individuals or groups that subscribe to aspects of the following ideals,” Freilich told this correspondent. “They are fiercely nationalistic…anti-global, suspicious of centralized federal authority, reverent of individual liberty (especially their right to own guns, be free of taxes), believe in conspiracy theories that involve a grave threat to national sovereignty and/or personal liberty and a belief that one’s personal and/or national “way of life” is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent (sometimes such beliefs are amorphous and vague, but for some the threat is from a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group), and a belief in the need to be prepared for an attack either by participating in paramilitary preparations and training and survivalism” (emphasis added).

“The mainstream conservative movement and mainstream Christian right are not included,” he wrote.

In other words, the essential ingredients of right-wing extremism, according to Freilich, require an emphasis on paramilitary action and generally involve individuals who ascribe to vast conspiracy theories about a hostile force which threatens America’s way of life. One possible example can be seen in the embedded video, in which “Lancelous” tells Campus Progress that “our Republic’s being destroyed because a long time ago, at the turn of the century, basically, our country was taken over by a private consortium of bankers” and “the collapse of this economy is actually planned. It’s a transfer of wealth.”

This correspondent asked Professor Freilich whether their database had recorded an actual upsurge in right-wing extremism. He replied, “We only recently completed the coding of the first phase of our study…and we are still cleaning the data. Unfortunately, currently we are not in the position to answer that question with confidence.”

However, START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a center of excellence at the University of Maryland, portrayed the threat as more pressing.

“The murder last week of 3 Pittsburgh police officers by far-right extremist Richard Poplawski is the most recent incident of violent activity in the United States by a far-right extremist against a police target,” states the press release. Using Freilich and Chermak’s database, the authors calculated that

  • “42 law enforcement officers have been killed in 32 incidents in which at least one of the suspects was a far-rightist since 1990,”
  • “94% of these incidents involved local or state law enforcement,”
  • “Only 12% of the suspects in these attacks were members of formal groups with far-right ideologies,” and
  • “The vast majority of these suspects are white and male, with almost 70% being 30 years old or younger.”

Professor Chermak and Professor Freilich have received a series of grants from the DHS for their research, totaling around $370,000. Their database is a project of START.

Given that only 12 percent of the mostly white, young males who commit right-wing crimes in the database are members of formal far-right groups, the question remains whether such databases engage in ideological profiling. For example, the description for the academic’s earlier database (1990 to 2005) states that

“This project is unique since it is broader than traditional ‘terrorist studies.’ Although these crimes vary considerably in their level of harm, all are the product of an extremist worldview. Limiting data collection to terrorist incidents would miss an important part of the picture” (emphasis added).

Freilich told this correspondent that their database “contains over 350 variables. A few variables focus on the motivation of the attack or the crime type.” The earlier database, according to the START website, incorporated “hate crimes” into this encoding.

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