The Charleston church massacre tragically illustrates that the threat of radical-right terrorism must be taken seriously.
The following statement was delivered today by SPLC President Richard Cohen to the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The full, written version can be read below.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of our time.
The devastating attacks led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and focused the country’s attention on the threat of Islamic extremism.
Yet, because of the horror of 9/11, the focus on other threats was pushed aside.
Let me give the committee an example.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Attorney General Reno formed a special task force to coordinate the country’s response to the threat of domestic terrorism.
The task force was scheduled to hold one of its monthly meetings on 9/11, and, of course, it didn’t for obvious reasons.
The problem wasn’t that the task force missed one meeting; the problem was that it simply stopped meeting altogether as the country’s focus shifted to the threat of Islamic extremism.
At the same time, a different threat, radical-right extremism, was growing.
In the years following 9/11, we documented a tremendous growth in the number of white supremacist and other hate groups in our country.
During this same period, there also was a marked increase in radical-right violence.
After President Obama was first elected, we detected another alarming trend – a tremendous increase in the number of conspiracy-minded, radical antigovernment groups – the same kind of groups that were prevalent during the period of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In the years before President Obama’s election, DHS had maintained a modest commitment to monitoring non-Islamic domestic extremism.
But that commitment waned after a controversy erupted over a report that the department issued in 2009.
As the Washington Post reported, DHS “cut the number of personnel studying domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam, canceled numerous state and local law enforcement briefings, and held up nearly a dozen reports on extremist groups” in the wake of the controversy.
In the last two years, we’ve actually seen a decrease in the number of hate and radical antigovernment groups operating in this country.
But this decrease hasn’t been matched with a decrease in radical-right activity.
What we’ve seen, instead, is an increase in the number of persons associated with white supremacist activity online and an uptick in the level of violence.
In the last five years, for example, the number of registered users on Stormfront, the leading neo-Nazi forum, has increased by 50% to over 300,000.
Other white supremacist websites have also seen increases in traffic.
These sites are echo chambers where people like Dylan Roof – the confessed Charleston shooter – have their racist views validated and encouraged.
We issued a report last year that documented that Stormfront users had killed numerous people in the previous five years.
Glenn Frazier Cross, a frequent poster at another racist website, killed three people last year at Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas.
We knew Cross well. His followers once plotted to blow up our building in retaliation for a case we had filed against Cross and one of his associates.
The killings in Overland Park led the Justice Department to revive the task force that had originally been established after the Oklahoma City bombing.
We’ve also seen, over the last year, increased interest from DHS in the threat of non-Islamic extremism.
At the same time, we’ve seen indications that it’s still on the back burner.
As the Charleston massacre makes clear, though, the threat is still very real.
A recent survey documented that “law enforcement agencies …consider anti-government extremists …the most severe threat .. that they face.”
And as has been widely reported, more people have been killed since 9/11 by radical-right terrorists than by Islamic extremists.
I don’t want to make too much, though, of these facts.
Many law enforcement officers have been killed in recent years by radical-right fanatics, so it’s not surprising that the law enforcement community is on edge.
And if we started to count deaths the day before rather than the day after 9/11, the figures would tell a different story.
We need not contend that the threat of non-Islamic terrorism is comparable to the kind of terror that brought down the Twin Towers to make the point that it is a serious one that deserves a full measure of the government’s attention.
The killings at Charleston’s “Mother Emanuel" church make that point for us.
I urge the committee to ensure that the fight against Islamic extremists does not take the government’s attention away from other threats that endanger our country.