The Anti-Defamation League has announced that according to its tabulations, 2020 actually saw the lowest number of extremist-related murders since 2004, with a total of 17 deaths in 15 different incidents.
Given that we are told that domestic terrorism is rampant in America, necessitating significant new legislative measures to target terrorism, it is useful to raise the question—how many of those extremist-related deaths were the result of deliberate political violence? How many qualify as acts of domestic terrorism?
As we examine this report, we will take at face value the ADL claims regarding motivations and membership in extremist groups, even though the ADL’s methodology—based on a mixture of media reports and apparently independent research—could reasonably be criticized.
For example, in a number of cases the presence of apparently white supremacist tattoos was judged sufficient for assessing the motivations of the assailant, even though the presence of such symbology does not necessarily indicate whether an individual is associated with a criminal gang which utilizes such symbols, associated with a political extremist group, or whether it has some other significance not immediately recognizable by outside observers.
The ADL report documents that four of the 17 recorded deaths were committed at the hands of individuals linked to known white supremacist prison gangs and engaged in gang activity. As David Hines noted in his recent Center for Security Policy report Towards a Useful Taxonomy of White Supremacist Attitudes, there is a strong tendency in counter-extremism literature to conflate politically motivated white supremacists with criminal gang members, despite that the two groups commit very different types of crimes.
Another three murders were committed by a single man, Thomas “Crazy” Curry, a member of the Highwaymen MC outlaw motorcycle club, who killed fellow gang members.
With ten killings remaining, one was from inter-group violence, where Neely Petrie-Blanchard killed Christopher Hallett –who reportedly led the Sovereign Citizen group to which she belonged to—after Petrie-Blanchard suspected Hallett was working with the government.
One was a dispute over rent in which a man –allegedly a sovereign citizen—killed his landlord with a samurai sword.
One was the killing by Roy Den Hollander of a rival men’s rights activist. Hollander would go on to open fire on a judge and her family at home, killing the judge’s son and wounding her husband.
That judge had been presiding over a case Hollander had filed. This second killing certainly could be considered politically motivated, so in this case we will accept it as such. Though an argument might be made that it does not meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism, and Hollander’s motivation could possibly be more rightly put down to revenge over the judge’s rejection of his legal suit.
Ryan Joseph Nash –who had white supremacist-linked tattoos—shot and killed 29-year-old Dalton Wood, later alleging Wood had threatened him over a previous conflict between Nash and Wood’s brother.
Convicted felon Preston Cheyenne Johnson killed police officer Nick O’Rear while fleeing arrest, reportedly fearing arrest on weapons charges. While the ADL reports that Johnson possessed white supremacist tattoos, a convicted felon attempting to elude police over fear of arrest would not seem to qualify as domestic terrorism or politically motivated.
The remaining 5 deaths are:
- Antifa member Michael Reinoehl shot and killed Aaron Danielson who had attended a pro-Trump rally in Portland.
- Steven Carrillo, reportedly an anti-government extremist, allegedly killed a security guard and a police officer.
- John Dabritz, reportedly an anti-government extremist, allegedly killed a state trooper while at a car stop. Dabritz reportedly sought to avoid arrest for a series of attacks on propane gas tanks and other infrastructure.
- Darren Peter Zesk and Jared Lee Zesk were arrested for the hate-crime murder of an 18-year-old black man. The hate-crime murder, while obviously heinous in the extreme, is arguably not politically motivated as such. Hate crimes are adjudicated under separate laws with their own sentencing enhancements and requirements.
The definition of domestic terrorism requires an attempt to “intimidate or coerce the civilian population” or “influence the policy” or “affect the conduct” of the government.
In a videotaped interview with Vice News, Antifa member Reinoehl related conflicting motivations. On one hand, Reinoehl claimed to be acting in self-defense. But Reinoehl later in the same interview described the shooting as “the beginning” of a civil war.
Arguably Reinoehl’s murder might be considered equivalent to the hate-crime murder by the Zesks deriving from Reinoehl’s “hatred” of Davidson because of Davidson’s beliefs. But given the reference to being a participant in a “civil war” it would seem reasonable to include Reinoehl among politically motivated domestic terrorism. This is particularly the case if you consider Reinoehl’s motivations to include intimidating pro-Trump supporters from holding future rallies in the Portland-area, which is a motivation explicitly claimed by the antifa groups with which Reinoehl associated.
Of the remaining killings, Carrillo’s alleged attack and murder of a security guard at a federal courthouse best arguably fits the definition of domestic terrorism, and so the inclusion of the subsequent murder of a police officer to avoid arrest would seem reasonable to include as well. Under the same logic, Dabritz’s alleged murder of a police officer while attempting to elude arrest for what appears to be politically motivated attacks on infrastructure may also qualify.
Thus, of the 17 deaths the ADL records as being extremism-linked in 2020, only five would appear to meet a reasonable assessment as politically motivated, and even fewer are reasonably defined as domestic terrorism.
This is not intended to minimize the tragic loss of life in any of these or similar cases. All criminal violence requires an appropriate law enforcement response, and assailants must be brought to justice. But criminal gang violence is a different type of crime from domestic terrorism and requires a different response. The same is true for bias or hate crimes and other forms of inter-personal violence.
We should not be so anxious to claim that America is riddled with domestic terrorists, or that politically motivated violence is a significant statistical cause of death in the United States. It can certainly be argued that there are other reasons why domestic terror threats might be considered significant. But it is worth noting that routinely those arguing that white supremacist or right-wing terrorism represents the most significant threat routinely do so on the basis of alleged body count.