Identifying Three Trends in Far Right Violence in the United States
Sep 26, 2012
In the morning hours of August 5, 2012, the Sikh temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was crowded with children and mothers engaged in preparations for the Langar, a traditional Sikh communal meal scheduled to be held later that day. At around 10:00 AM, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old from nearby Cudahy, Wisconsin, arrived in the temple parking lot and started firing at the temple’s inhabitants using a pistol purchased several days earlier. He then entered the temple and continued his killing spree until he was gunned down by police forces that arrived to the site. At that point, he had already killed six worshippers and a police officer.
While details from the investigation have not yet been officially released, a growing body of evidence links Page to various far right elements, mainly the skinheads subculture and the white power music scene. As a result, policymakers and intellectuals expressed concerns about a potential revival of far right violence in the United States. Many of their responses also reflected common misconceptions and deficiencies that dominate the popular discourse about the American far right, such as the inability to distinguish between its different components, lack of understanding of its ideological tenets as well as the tendency to ignore the fact that American far right violence was never really absent; if anything, the level of far right violence has been rising steadily for the last two decades.
This article provides clarity on the various components of the American far right. It also offers a basic analytical model to better understand its current violent trends. The article’s findings—which are based on a dataset of more than 4,400 cases of violent attacks by far right elements during a 22-year period—will be expanded in a more detailed study that will soon be published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Typology of the American Violent Far Right
Three major ideological trends can be identified within the American violent far right: racist, anti-federalist and fundamentalist. The ideological characteristics of the various groups impact their operations in terms of tactics used and target selection.
The ideological trend most familiar to Americans is the racist one, which is comprised of white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), neo-Nazis such as the National Alliance, and skinhead groups such as the Hammerskin Nation. The racist groups are interested in preserving or restoring what they perceive as the appropriate and natural racial and cultural hierarchy by enforcing social and political control over non-whites—such as African Americans, Jews and various immigrant communities. Their ideological foundations are based mainly on ideas of nativism (rejection of foreign norms and practices), racism, segregation and xenophobia. Other popular components of the far-right ideology—including strong affinity for order and social control, traditional values and anti-democratic dispositions—are manifested by some of these groups, but are usually secondary.
Since the mid-1980s, many of the racist groups framed their ideas in a defensive context and started to utilize “civil rights” rhetoric, usually presenting themselves as dedicated to the promotion or protection of the white race, and preserving their heritage and culture. Other groups, however, intensified their usage of Nazi heritage, symbols, rituals and ideological foundations to justify and promote anti-Semitic, racist and nativist ideas, as well as exclusionism. More specifically, since some of these groups believe that territorial and racial purity is a condition for the survival of the “white race,” they developed the idea of enforced segregation, including concrete “programs” to eliminate inferior races, expel others or divide the United States into racially homogeneous geographical areas.
In terms of target selection, and in line with the trend’s ideology, the great majority of attacks perpetrated by these groups are aimed against individuals or organizations affiliated with a specific minority ethnic group, or non-Aryan facilities (mosques, synagogues, or schools affiliated with minority communities). While the KKK is heavily involved in acts of vandalism, the skinheads and the neo-Nazi groups are more engaged in attacks against human targets and show a higher affinity for mass casualty attacks.
The anti-federalist trend (which is usually identified in the literature as the “militia” or “patriot” movement) appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s with the emergence of groups such as the Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments existed in U.S. society before the 1990s via diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, and a “survivalist” lifestyle. Yet most scholars concur that the “farm crises” of the 1980s combined with the implications of rapid cultural, technological and normative changes in American society, as well as attempts to revise gun control and environmental legislation, facilitated the emergence of a fairly ideologically cohesive movement, as well as its rapid growth.
Ideologically, anti-federalists are interested in undermining the influence, legitimacy and practical sovereignty of the federal government and its proxy organizations, such as the U.S. military or Federal Bureau of Investigation. This rationale is multifaceted, and includes the belief that the U.S. political system and its proxies have been hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a New World Order (NWO), in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government; strong convictions regarding the corrupted and tyrannical nature of the federal government and its related natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civilian lives and constitutional rights; and finally, perceptions supporting civilian activism, individual freedoms, and self governing the way they were manifested in the frontier culture in U.S. history, especially during the Revolutionary War and the expansion to the American west. Hence, anti-federalist groups see themselves as part of a struggle to restore or preserve the United States’ “true” identity, values and “way of life” and as the successors of the country’s founding fathers.
Recent research conducted by this author shows that in the case of the anti-federalist trend there is compatibility between ideological tenets and operational characteristics. Two-thirds of the attacks by anti-federalist groups were directed against the government and its proxies, such as law enforcement (65.8%); while attacks against minorities (11%) and infrastructure (6.1%, which could also be seen as attacks against the government) comprise most of the rest.
The fundamentalist trend, which includes mainly Christian identity groups such as the Aryan Nations, merges religious fundamentalism with traditional white supremacy and racist tendencies. It promotes ideas of nativism, exclusionism, and racial superiority via a unique interpretation of religious texts that focus on division of humanity according to primordial attributes. More specifically, these groups maintain that a correct interpretation of the holy texts reveals that it is not the people of Israel but the Anglo-Saxons who are the chosen people. Moreover, the war between the forces of light and darkness, as portrayed in the Bible, will be (or has already been) manifested via racial war between the white Anglo-Saxon nation and various non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups such as the “Children of Satan” (Jews) and “mud people” (non-whites). The identity groups tend to utilize religious heritage, symbols, rituals and norms to instill and spread these ideas, as well as to provide moral justification for, and encouragement to, political activism against elements that are threatening the materialization of the appropriate sociopolitical order.
Operationally, identity violence focuses on minorities and has a higher tendency to involve mass casualty attacks (in comparison to the other two trends).
The Iceberg Model and American Far Right Violence
In the early 1980s, the Israeli political scientist Ehud Sprinzak published a paper on the irredentist Israeli religio-political movement Gush Emunim (The Bloc of the Faithful) entitled “The Iceberg Model of Political Extremism.” He argued that the Gush is best understood not as a classical protest movement, but as the extremist tip of a large social and cultural “iceberg,” in effect a religious subculture, which supports and nurtures the Gush. Pyramidal in structure, this iceberg—Gush’s social and political bases of support—broadens as one moves from the politically extremist tip to the less extremist base. Based on analysis of 4,400 cases of violent attacks by far-right elements in a 22-year period, the iceberg model could be applicable for understanding some of the characteristics of the American violent far right as well.
To begin with, the American far right is characterized by a large base of supporters (the base of the “iceberg”) who are usually engaged in low level violence (usually minor incidents of vandalism or low sophisticated attacks against individuals) and are not affiliated with any formal organizational frameworks (for example, just one percent of the attacks by unaffiliated members includes the use of firearms or explosives, well below what could be observed in any of the other trends). Based on the body of literature developed in the last few years regarding political radicalization, it is possible to carefully assume that the perpetrators of these attacks are the future recruitment potential of the more institutionalized organizations. In other words, after crossing the line and performing some minor attacks on their own initiative, at some point these individuals may look for more organized, systematic mechanisms to express their ideas for political activism, and thus will join one of the other, more formal, streams of the American far right toward the top of the iceberg.
If this perspective is indeed a reflection of the movement’s structure and dynamics, then the United States may be facing a continuous rise in the level of violence, especially since the last six years have been characterized by an overall increase in the “base” of the iceberg (i.e., there has been an increase in the number of low sophisticated, unaffiliated and spontaneous attacks, which have been followed by an increase in the number of mass casualty attacks). It should be noted that most of these low sophisticated/spontaneous attacks have received relatively little attention from the media, political authorities and law enforcement, while the few mass casualty attacks attracted most of the attention.
Which groups contribute most to the tip of the iceberg, and which are closer to its base? The findings show that the KKK (and on some level anti-abortionists), with its current informal and fragmented structure and low level of operational sophistication, is the formal movement that is closest to the base of the iceberg (and may be the first station for those joining the “formal” American far right). The higher one “climbs” to the top of the iceberg, the more lethal the group’s attacks and the smaller they are in volume. Therefore, following the KKK, the order can be ranked as follows from least to most lethal: skinheads, militias, neo-Nazi groups and finally attacks perpetrated by individuals or groups affiliated with the Christian identity movement. To illustrate, while Christian identity elements perpetrated “just” 66 attacks in the last 22 years, their attacks generated close to three victims per attack on average. The skinheads, which are part of the racist trend, were responsible for more than 200 attacks, but averaged close to one victim per attack.
While the model is not perfect, overall it seems that the iceberg model fits the findings, as there is a clear base which is wider in terms of the number of attacks but is less “sharp” (in lethality), while the narrower parts of the iceberg are indeed sharper and more lethal.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the most damaging and dangerous mass of an iceberg is actually the section that is underwater. Indeed, the high volume of far right violence reflected in vandalism and attacks against individuals is probably a better indication of the growing threat from the far right than the small number of mass casualty attacks. A group or individual will rarely engage in mass casualty attacks without first moving through the lower base of the iceberg by engaging in low profile attacks. A rise in the number of low profile attacks should eventually result in an increase in mass casualty attacks.
In more specific terms, the findings reflect a steady rise in the level of far right violence in the United States during the last two decades. While some far right groups are clearly in decline, such as the KKK and anti-abortionists, others such as the skinheads, neo-Nazis and militias are still active and represent a growing threat.
Dr. Arie Perliger is the Class of 1977 Director of Terrorism Studies at the Combating Terrorism Center and Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
 Page was shot in the abdomen during a firefight with police. He then shot himself in the head.
 Richard Abens, American Militias (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), pp. 7-20; Joel Dyer, Harvest of Rage (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), pp. 24-44; Kathlyn Gay, Militias: Armed and Dangerous (Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers Inc., 1997), pp. 36-52.
 A development that may be responsible for the growing concern and awareness of a militia movement revival is the popularity of the Sovereign Citizen movement. Simply put, the Sovereign Citizen movement opposes formal governmental regulations of their “basic rights” such as “driving the land” (thus, Sovereign Citizen members will refuse to apply for, or to have, a driver’s license and car registration) or working for a living (thus refusing to pay taxes). Several violent incidents involving Sovereign Citizen members, including the killing of two West Memphis, Arkansas, police officers during a traffic stop in May 2010, provided an indication that some members of the movement were indeed willing to use violence to protect and follow their principles.
 They believe in the existence of a conspiratorial organization allegedly masterminding events and controlling world affairs through governments and corporations to establish a New World Order (see, for example, the Illuminati movement, which originated initially in 18th century Germany).
 There are two reasons for this. First, some scholars have suggested that the more the group’s agenda is framed in religious and totalistic ideas, the more it will be willing or determined to use exceptionally lethal tactics. Second, while the skinheads and KKK members are in many cases a part of the social fabric of a specific community, this is not the case with many members of identity groups. This isolation, which creates a social distance between members of the group and mainstream society, may serve not just as a breeding ground for radicalization, but may facilitate a stronger sense of alienation toward the mainstream culture and willingness to engage in extreme, harmful activities.
 Ehud Sprinzak, “Gush Emunim: The Iceberg Model of Political Extremism,” Jerusalem Quarterly 21 (1981): pp. 28-47.
 For example, excluding the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, militias generated fewer victims than the neo-Nazi groups, despite engaging in a lower number of attacks.