On January 6, 2021, the nation was roiled by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. To many, this distinctive nationalist — even tribalist— form of political behavior seemed like an anomaly. But this anti-state violence is not unique, nor is it the first wave of modern terrorist behavior. We are currently in the midst of a new terrorist assault on this nation.
In 2004, UCLA Professor Emeritus David Rapaport, one of the nation’s experts on terrorism, published “Four Waves on Modern Terrorism,” in which he categorized prior terrorist movements by time period:
- Anarchism (1880-1920), including the assassinations of the U.S. President William McKinley and King Umberto of Italy
- Anti-Colonialism (1920-1960), featuring groups like the American Weather Underground, West German RAF and the French Action Directe
- The New Left (1960-2000), featuring nationalist attacks such as the murders at the Munich Olympics and the kidnapping of OPEC ministers
- Religious Terrorism (1979-2010), the most notable attack being 9/11
Despite the fact that each period differed in nature and intent, all four exhibited the rise of distinctive organizations, which operated for approximately one generation (about 40 years), committed to some form of “revolution” and used religious ideals and texts to motivate and support their terrorist expressions. For Rapaport, terrorism was employed as a strategy, not as an end product. “Revolution was the overriding aim in every wave, but revolution was understood differently in each. Most terrorist organizations have understood revolution as secession or national self-determination.”
Even though Rapaport’s article was published nearly two decades ago, his framework can help identify, understand and combat the latest wave of terror: white or ethnic nationalism. In the United States, these radicalized organizations include Patriotic Militias, the Proud Boys and white supremacist groups. Abroad, ethnic nationalism can be seen in political parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) and the Law and Justice Party in Poland.
These organizations grew in response to demographic changes, as traditionally white societies have become multicultural, multi-racial nation-states. In the United States, this current wave emerged in response to the Obama presidency and garnered additional support during the Trump presidency. And in Europe, these groups emerged in response to growing immigration rates and the refugee surge from the Middle East and Africa.
In witnessing these demographic changes, nationalist groups believe that their definitions of patriotism and their understanding of nationalism are coming undone. Fearing a loss to their white status and alarmed over the changing landscape, these extremist movements seek to push back against these evolving trends by undercutting the leaders and constituencies who empower these new political voices.
These groups utilize bigotry and conspiracy theories to single out, marginalize and vilify their opponents, who can include politicians, journalists and leaders in the technology industry. Many of these groups share an anti-Jewish bias, for example, because they view Jews as advancing these new cultural and racial affirmations while seeking power for themselves, displacing existing “white” elites. This anti-Semitism was evident in Charlottesville in 2017 — when alt-right protestors yelled, “the Jews will not replace us!” — and in the anti-Semitic messaging of conspiracy theories, such as Qanon, which discusses Jews and their supposed “super human” powers and actions. Tribal nationalists, it should be noted, invoke references to “fake news” and “the deep state” as a way of conveying their beliefs about the corrupted political environment.
Similar to other past terrorist movements, these nationalists often adopt religious tones to justify their positions. “Christian Nationalism,” for instance, supports Christian identity and practice taking precedence over supporting national political guidelines. This movement is specifically associated with science skepticism. For example, a study by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that pushback against wearing masks, questioning the right to convene groups for public gatherings and doubting the value of securing a vaccine were all encouraged by Christian Nationalist rhetoric.
But like all other terrorist groups, the true danger of these nationalists lies not in their rhetoric but in their violence. Beyond their presence at the violent riots at the Capitol, far-right groups like the Proud Boys attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, resulting in the death of one counter-protestor. These groups also participated in violent street riots in Portland and Seattle between 2018 and 2020, and they are being charged by New York authorities with an October 2018 assault.
Like all other terrorist groups, the true danger of these nationalists lies not in their rhetoric but in their violence.
Most notably, the perpetrator of the October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jews were murdered, espoused far-right conspiracy beliefs and was active on Gab, a social network popular with white supremacists. The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Annual Audit found that “the total number of antisemitic incidents in 2019 increased 12 percent over the previous year … there were, on average, as many as six antisemitic incidents in the U.S. for each day in the calendar year — the highest level of antisemitic activity ever recorded.”
Similar patterns of hate are present elsewhere across the globe. In 2019, a gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle, Germany, with the aim of killing “as many anti-Whites as possible, jews preferred,” according to the manifesto he published. Also in 2019, a self-described “Eco-fascist” murdered 50 individuals at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
These are not isolated incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2019 report noted that “Hundreds of hate groups are operating in America, targeting immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, Blacks and other people of color.” And despite the far-right’s attempts to depict the far-left as the bigger threat, the ADL’s hate tracker shows that far-right extremists perpetrated the vast majority of terrorist plots/attacks, extremist murders and extremist/police shootouts in the United States between 2019 and 2020.
Responding to this newest outbreak of terror will require legislation targeting various forms of hate-based violence, monitoring of these extremist organizations by federal and local authorities, civics education and prejudice reduction training directed to schools and universities, strengthening our counter-intelligence units and public ads and programming educating citizens on the responsibilities and roles of citizenship. Additionally, the officials and media outlets distributing conspiracy theories must be held accountable by state and federal law enforcement agencies.
As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are likely to see more violent expressions directed against government leaders, Jewish institutions and minority communities. In a period of such political distress and distrust, we must require leaders at all thresholds of influence to maximize constructive dialogue with disparate voices and alert citizens to any potential threats to the public’s safety. The preservation of order and the safety of Americans and our institutions are at stake.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com