The mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh exemplifies an increasingly deadly form of domestic terrorism committed by far-right extremists: the targeting of institutions and individuals due to their religious affiliation.
Unfortunately, it’s not new for far-right extremists to vilify non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon and non-Protestant religions. Judaism has endured most of their ideological rage and conspiratorial paranoia. For more than a century, extreme far-right ideologues have peddled anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories. Their dogma claims, falsely, that globalist Jews have infiltrated the government and other U.S. institutions, and that Jews and non-whites pose an existential threat to the white race.
Some more militant members of the extreme far-right have acted on these beliefs by attacking Jewish people and institutions. The ultimate goal for many, according to the information we collect about perpetrator motives, is to ignite a race war in which Anglo-Saxon whites will emerge victorious – such that they can reclaim power over the U.S. political system and social institutions.
Patterns of religious animosity
Since 2006, the U.S. Extremist Crime Database has been a reliable source of information on extreme far-right homicides. We and other terrorism researchers have used this database to understand the nature of violent and non-violent extremist crimes in the U.S.
From 1990 to the present, far-right extremists have committed 217 ideologically motivated homicides. Of these homicides, 19 targeted religious institutions or individuals thought to be associated with a particular religion. Eleven were motivated by anti-Semitism, specifically.
More than three-quarters of these homicides had only one victim; however, many events had multiple fatalities. Due to this, the total number of ideological homicide victims was 490, including the 168 murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing. Of those victims, more than 50 were murdered because the offender targeted an institution or individual based on religious affiliation, real or perceived.
Although religious minorities are murdered less frequently than racial and other social minorities, an increasing number of lethal attacks by extreme far-rightists have drawn more attention to this form of violence.
Including the 11 killed at the Tree of Life synagogue, other examples of attacks at religious institutions include the murder of seven at a Baptist church in Texas in 1999; two killed at a Unitarian church in Tennessee in 2008; six killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012; and nine killed at an African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina in 2015. Such attacks lead us to question whether violent extreme far-rightists may be increasing their focus on religious targets.
In addition, there have been close to 100 failed or foiled plots against Jewish institutions or individuals between 1990 and 2014. These plots, some involving attempted murders, rarely receive the same amount of attention as successful murders. However, the fact that failed or foiled plots are an estimated nine times as prevalent as similarly motivated homicides during this time frame is cause for concern.
The aftermath of anti-religious violence
Moreover, ECDB data on anti-Semitic homicides point to a disturbing trend. Far-right extremists are engaging in deadlier attacks within the most sacred of spaces: houses of worship. There is no indication that extreme far-rightists will cease propagating anti-Semitic conspiracies. And it is also likely that some will interpret these twisted messages as permission to kill religious minorities. As in in the past, some may even perceive doing so as a higher calling or sacred duty.
The trauma stemming from these attacks will have severe and long-lasting psychological effects on the victims, their families and the broader Jewish community. In this way, crimes targeting religious minorities and other protected groups are unique from parallel crimes and rip deeper at America’s social fabric.
We, as a society, may not know what exactly pushes one person to act so violently on their beliefs and another to not. But we believe countering divisive narratives with different viewpoints informed by evidence on what works to prevent radicalization is more productive than aggravating wounds with politicized rhetoric.
As Americans, we must speak openly about the perils of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and both the rhetorical and real dehumanization of those we perceive as unlike us. Those wielding political power and influence need to publicly and clearly condemn acts of violence by extreme far-rightists and the ideologies underpinning this form of domestic terrorism.
Dr. Steve Chermak at Michigan State University and Dr. Joshua D. Freilich at John Jay College of Criminal Justice contributed to this research.