Read the fine print when referring to this ADL data on right-wing violence

The NY Times’ David Leonhardt points to some data collected by the Anti-Defamation League today to make the point that the right has a violence problem.

Over the past decade, the Anti-Defamation League has counted about 450 U.S. murders committed by political extremists.

Of these 450 killings, right-wing extremists committed about 75 percent. Islamic extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists were responsible for 4 percent.

Nearly half of the murders were specifically tied to white supremacists…

As this data shows, the American political right has a violence problem that has no equivalent on the left. And the 10 victims in Buffalo this past weekend are now part of this toll. “Right-wing extremist violence is our biggest threat,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, has written. “The numbers don’t lie.”

The numbers don’t lie but they may be misleading to people who don’t pay attention to what the numbers actually represent. Before we continue, let me say that I am very much against political violence regardless of who is perpetrating the violence or who is the victim of the violence. But the point I want to make is that the numbers cited by the ADL, as Leonhardt correctly said, are “murders committed by political extremists.” However, they are not all politically motivated murders. There is a difference.

The mass shooting in Buffalo and the one in Orange County, CA both appear to be incidents of political violence. In both cases, it seems clear the shooter had a pre-existing anger at a certain group of people and intended to murder as many people in that group as possible. But not all of the murders tracked by the ADL are of this type. Instead, the ADL tracks any murder committed by an identifiable member of an extremist group whether that murder was political or personal. If you read though the ADL description linked in the Times’ article it says as much:

Adherents of some far-right extremist movements engage not only in ideological violence (defined narrowly for the purposes of this report as attacking perceived enemies, as well as others who may get in the way of such attacks), but also other forms of deadly violence. Extremists often engage in violence related to their group or movement that may not involve attacking an enemy. For example, extremists sometimes murder suspected informants in their own ranks; they may also kill rival members of their own group or of another group.

Additionally, members of some extremist groups—particularly those that take the form of gangs—may kill while committing “traditional” crimes, such as those involving illegal drugs. It may also be likely, though it is difficult to definitively prove, that the ideologies or subcultures of certain types of extremists, including white supremacists and toxic masculinity extremists, may play a role in enabling incidents of deadly domestic violence—or other violent acts as well.

Finally, the motives behind many murders never become known (particularly if a perpetrator pleads guilty without a trial) or are never released by law enforcement.

All these types of murders are conservatively classified in this report as “non-ideological,” even though it is possible that extremism still played some sort of role in many.

Over the past 10 years, the number of ideological-related killings and non-ideological (and unknown motive) killings by extremists has been close to equal (231 versus 212), with the majority of non-ideological killings coming from right-wing extremists, especially white supremacists. Sovereign citizens have also been responsible for several non-ideological killings in recent years. To some degree, this may say more about how easy it is to identify white supremacists and sovereign citizens compared to other types of extremists. A white supremacist who commits a non-ideological killing may still possibly be identified as such by his or her tattoos, or perhaps a gang association previously documented by law enforcement. A sovereign citizen arrested for a murder is likely to use the distinctive pseudo-legal language and tactics of that movement. But if the person who committed that non-ideological murder was instead an Islamist extremist or a member of a militia group, it may be possible this fact will not be noticed or documented. In other words, some extremist movements may be underrepresented in this data when it comes to non-ideological killings.

In 2021, 14 of the extremist murders appear to have been committed in whole or in part as ideological killings, while 15 were committed for one or another of the non-ideological motives mentioned above or for which no motive has been revealed.

So about half of the murders committed by right-wing extremists are non-ideological or of unknown motive. For instance, here’s one of the murder that took place last year.

Fresno, California, April 13, 2021: Brandon Engelman was arrested after allegedly fatally shooting a man with whom he had long been feuding. Engelman, according to law enforcement, is a member of the Fresnecks, a local white supremacist street gang.

Engleman was also charged with unrelated crimes of “kidnapping, elder abuse and domestic violence.” He sounds like a real piece of work. But the murder cited by the ADL involved some kind of long-running feud and doesn’t seem to have been political in the sense that the Buffalo or Orange County shootings were political. And there are many more examples like this in the ADL report:

Vorhees Township, New Jersey, August 3, 2021: Shawn Lichtfuss allegedly strangled his wife to death in a domestic violence incident. Lichtfuss has a white supremacist past that includes vandalizing three synagogues with white supremacist graffiti and distributing handmade neo-Nazi fliers.

Again, this sounds like a person who I hope spends the rest of his life in prison but there’s no evidence this murder was ideological. I first pointed out the way the ADL was collecting this data back back in 2018:

The ADL also publishes an annual report titled “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 20xx.” In 2016, the ADL published this striking claim which got quoted quite a few times by people on the left: “Over the past 10 years (2007-2016), domestic extremists of all kinds have killed at least 372 people in the United States. Of those deaths, approximately 74% were at the hands of right-wing extremists, about 24% of the victims were killed by domestic Islamic extremists, and the remainder were killed by left-wing extremists.”

Last year I asked ADL if they could provide the information to back up that claim because the actual data is not available on their website and wasn’t included in the 2016 report itself. Initially, they responded and agreed they would pull together some information for me. But it never arrived. I sent 2 or 3 follow-up emails over a period of months and they never responded to those at all.

The information in the annual extremism reports published by the ADL is based on a database of extremist murders which the ADL keeps to itself. Its definition of extremist murders includes murders that, by the ADL’s own admission, were not ideological in nature…

In the case of the extremism reports, the ADL never hid the fact it was including these non-ideological murders, but I suspect most people reading a quote second hand…aren’t fully aware what is included in the bottom line.

If the ADL wants to argue that white supremacist gang members are violent dirtbags who are a danger to their own families and personal enemies, that’s fine. I certainly won’t argue that the kind of people who believe this junk are likely to be dumb and dangerous. Still, I suspect a lot of people skimming the numbers from these annual ADL reports titled “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 20xx” may not realize that about half of the right-wing violence these reports cite is, by the ADL’s own admission, not the kind of ideological hatred we saw in Buffalo last weekend.

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