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There’s One Big Problem With the Left’s Claim That Most Extremist Violence Comes From the Right

A new Anti-Defamation League report, widely cited in the mainstream media as evidence of an epidemic of right-wing extremist violence, has been misinterpreted.

SO WHAT

For liberal journalists, the findings appear to have been too good to check.

THE NUMBERS

According to the ADL report, published earlier this year, right wingers were responsible for 75% of the 451 murders committed by extremists over the past decade.

White supremacists were the biggest offenders, responsible for 55% of the killings in the report.

  • “Congress must recognize that white supremacist extremism is a major global threat of our era and mobilize with that mindset,” urged the ADL, an influential anti-Semitism watchdog.
The ADL’s findings got renewed media attention following last month’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, which was allegedly committed by a white supremacist.
  • “As this data shows, the American political right has a violence problem that has no equivalent on the left,” David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times’ popular morning newsletter May 17.
  • “Right-wing extremist violence is our biggest threat,” Leonhardt quoted ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt as saying. “The numbers don’t lie.”

THE NUMBERS SOMETIMES LIE

But skeptics have also taken a second look at the ADL report and discovered some serious problems with how the data has been popularly understood.

For starters, the ADL lumped together “ideological” and “non-ideological” killings to arrive at its claim that most extremist violence is committed by right wingers.

  • Only “86 of the 244 white supremacist killings (35%) were ideological murders,” the ADL reported, meaning 65% were non-ideological or had unknown motives.
  • The problem, of course, is that non-ideological murders have little or no relation to what is commonly thought of as extremist violence.

Among all the extremist murders, “the number of ideological-related killings and non-ideological (and unknown motive) killings by extremists has been close to equal (231 versus 212),” the ADL acknowledged.

  • “Extremists can also commit murders while engaging in non-ideological criminal activities ranging from home invasions to domestic violence. In some cases, extremists may commit a murder the motive for which is never revealed. We include all these types of killings in this report.”

WHAT SHE SAID

“Drill down further into the data and you’ll find other cases are even less clearly political,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle wrote last month in a critical breakdown of the ADL report.

  • She listed as examples: “prison gang members engaging in pedestrian criminal violence; white supremacists killing their wives; people with mental illness acting on elaborate delusions that sometimes include references to right-wing conspiracy theories; people embroiled in criminal trials or child custody disputes who have become enamored of ‘sovereign citizen’ theories that tell them the state has no right to interfere.”

McArdle also warned that the ADL and the media may be operating in a feedback loop that contributes to seeing right-wing extremism everywhere.

  • “After all those reports on the threat of right-wing violence, any new case with a tenuous link to the alt-right or the Aryan Brotherhood seems like part of a trend meriting wall-to-wall coverage. Meanwhile, a Black man driving into a parade after making anti-White remarks on Facebook is seen as a sick individual,” she wrote, referring to the Waukesha Christmas parade attack.
  • “There’s some danger that this becomes the policy equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone: Media primed by nongovernmental-organization reports play up even glancing connections to racist or militia groups, which in turn guarantees that the next such report will feature a disproportionate share of cases coded as ‘right-wing violence.'”

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