In the days before he walked into Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church with a gun and murdered nine people, Dylann Roof put together a manifesto. It was a bizarre, rambling tract loaded with racial and political animus, much of it cribbed from white-supremacist groups with ties to South Carolina’s Republican establishment. In the final section, Roof wrote:
“I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.
Roof ’s manifesto was reminiscent of a similar document penned in 2008 by a conservative Tennessee man named Jim David Adkisson. Adkisson was enraged by the looming nomination of a black man as the Democratic candidate for the presidency.
“I’m protesting the DNC running such a radical leftist candidate,” Adkisson wrote. “Osama Hussein Obama, yo mama. No experience, no brains, a joke. Dangerous to America, he looks like Curious George!” He was appalled by the race-mixing mores of modern times as exemplified by Obama’s mother: “How is a white woman having a niger [sic] baby progress?” he asked.
In July 2008, Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in downtown Knoxville during a performance of a children’s musical, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He opened fire, killing two people and wounding seven more.
The image most Americans have when they think of terrorism is an act committed by someone wearing a turban. That is mostly a result of the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, and their lingering aftermath, especially a declared ‘war on terror’ that focused on battling radical Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
In much of the public imagination, Adkisson’s and Roof’s rampages were isolated incidents. In reality, however, they were key manifestations of a larger, more disturbing phenomenon, one which has been ignored or even actively discounted by elected officials and the mainstream media – rightwing domestic terrorism.
In the seven and a half years between those two attacks, domestic terrorism in America – acts that are plotted and executed on American soil, directed at US citizens, by actors based here – spiked dramatically. But hardly anyone noticed.
During that time span, there were 201 total cases of domestic terrorism in the United States – almost three times the rate of the preceding eight years. The large majority of these crimes were committed by rightwing extremists – some 115 in all, compared to 63 cases of Islamist-inspired domestic terror, and 19 cases of leftwing-extremist terrorism.
Rightwing extremist terrorism was more often deadly than Islamist extremism: nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of seventy-nine deaths, whereas just 8% of Islamist incidents caused fatalities. However, the total number of deaths resulting from Islamist incidents was higher – 90 – due largely to three mass shootings in which nearly all the casualties occurred: in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, and in 2015 in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, in 2016. Incidents related to leftwing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights actions, were comparatively rare: 19 incidents resulted in five deaths.
For at least a generation, rightwing homegrown extremists have been far and away the largest source of terrorism in the United States. The most damaging domestic terrorist attack ever committed on American soil was the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured another 680. Initially, media speculation focused on Islamic radical terrorists as the possible source of the terrorist attack, but the perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, turned out to be white rightwing extremists.
Before Obama’s election in 2008 – and partly in anticipation of that event – the rate of rightwing domestic terrorist incidents began to rise dramatically, seemingly triggered by Jim David Adkisson’s crime. And it remained at that same high level for most of the Obama presidency.
In 2011, the Senate did hold hearings on the subject of right-wing extremist violence in the wake of neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six worshippers died. At that hearing senators heard from Daryl Johnson, a veteran domestic-terrorism analyst. Johnson was unequivocal:
“The threat of domestic terrorism motivated by extremist ideologies is often dismissed and overlooked in the national media and within the US government. Yet we are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity, specifically from violent rightwing extremists. While violent leftwing attacks were more prevalent in the 1970s, today the bulk of violent domestic activity emanates from the right wing.
Despite this grave reality, officialdom and the media have continued to focus only on terrorism threats plotted by Islamist radicals. Rightwing pundits in particular have viciously attacked and silenced anyone who tries to bring up rightwing violence in the framework of terrorism. They have grown touchy about their own ideological and rhetorical proximity to the extremism that is fueling the violence.
In American public life today there is an alternative dimension, a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia. It is a space that has been opened up and fortified in no small part by rightwing media, and that has proven fertile ground for domestic terrorism.
Welcome to Alt-America.
Alt-America is an alternative universe that has a powerful resemblance to our own, except that it’s a completely different America, the nation its residents have concocted and reconfigured in their imaginations. In this other America, suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories, often pedalled by media outlets from Infowars to Fox News, become concrete realities. Its citizens live alongside us in our universe, but their perception of that universe places them in a different world altogether, one scarcely recognizable to those outside it.
Among other pathologies, many Alt-Americans freely fantasize, in print and on YouTube, about their desire to execute liberals, terrorists, “race mixers,” and other traitors. I call this desire eliminationism – a politics, and its accompanying rhetoric, whose goal is to excise whole segments of the population in the name of making it “healthy.”