Posted by David Curtis on July 24, 2015 in Blog

In the current climate when we learn of an atrocious incident almost every week, it is all the more imperative that Americans alter the way we discuss violent acts in this country. The message delivered by Heidi Beirich, Michael German, Maya Berry, and James Zogby on Tuesday morning was a desperately vital start.

hate_crimes_event.jpgMs. Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center described the current situation: the number of white supremacist groups in America exploded after the year 2000, when statistics revealed that whites would be a minority by 2040. Although there were around 400 white supremacist groups in the 1990s, this number has actually surged upwards. Ms. Beirich stressed that characterizing domestic terrorism as coming from Islamic extremists is a false narrative; our terrorism threat comes from the radical right, she says, and all you need to do is “look at the data.” FBI figures suggest that there are currently between five and seven thousand hate crimes each year, but Ms. Beirich contends that these numbers are horrifically undercounted, and that the real number – based on actual survey data – is closer to 200,000. She added that while African Americans are often targeted, there has been a dangerous rise in anti-Muslim violence as well (or violence against people perceived as being Muslim).

Former FBI agent Michael German said there is no point in comparing which types of “terrorism” cause more harm to Americans. German, who during his time in the FBI went undercover to infiltrate white supremacist movements, says whether it’s racial, religious, or right-wing violent extremism, none of it matters. AAI President James Zogby expressed the important notion that these ideologies are simply the language through which people attempt to justify violence. In other words, if a person is angry about one thing or another, he or she will find an outlet through which to validate the killing of people.

To combat domestic terrorism, we tend to resort to anti-Muslim operations that are not just fruitless and incredibly expensive, but that are harmful to the United States. Conventional logic tells us that if we're not rolling out big programs around surveillance or other activities, "we’re doing nothing.” Mr. German countered that logic saying that while there are some 14,000 murders each year in the United States (a great deal of which go unsolved), we have focused on this tiny sliver of “domestic terrorism” which is blown vastly out of proportion by an American media that feeds on it. There is a reason, Mr. German observed, why these people are called “extremists”: their ideas are not very popular. If we instead make an effort to combat real violent crime in America, we will improve the odds of deterring future violence.

Ms. Beirich added that spotlighting American Muslims has an incredibly isolating effect—what better way to tell a group that they don’t belong than by implementing government-sponsored programs that target them? Unfortunately, it has become both easy and profitable for pundits and lawmakers to highlight Islam as “the problem.”

Dr. Zogby pointed out that “what America does best is absorb.” Although we have had past difficulties integrating different groups hate_crimes_event_3.jpginto the American system – Asians, African Americans, Jews, Catholics, etc. – eventually people come to feel that they have a place in America. But history is repeating itself. We are again attempting to divorce America from a group that is seen as “foreign,” and the government is helping. The American Muslim community is diverse in itself, but every citizen must be able to hold up the American identity as his or her own.

Rather than searching for a nonexistent psychological flaw that leads to a person becoming “radicalized” – a term Americans love to hate – we should zero in on discovering why a person is angry in the first place, while devoting our resources towards preventing violent crime. “If I were a conservative – and I’m not” offered Dr. Zogby, “I would find a whole lot of ways to cut money from the federal budget: performance-based programs would stay.” In particular, he says undertakings like the Patriot Act and airport profiling, which have amounted to almost exactly nothing, could and should be abolished.

If there was a way to shift the conversation about domestic terror in the ways described at this hearing, Americans would not only be safer, but there would be greater understanding between the people of our diverse society.

David Curtis is an intern with the Arab American Institute

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