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Q&A: Prof. Colin Beck Discusses Right-Wing Extremism in U.S. and Abroad

Tear gas U.S. Capitol

Right-wing extremists attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Images from the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, four years ago are reminders that white supremacy is still a violent force in America. And around the globe, far-right terrorist attacks have increased by 320% over the past five years, according to the Global Terrorism Database, the gold standard index of terrorist events. Pomona College Sociology Professor Colin Beck, an expert on terrorism and social movement radicalism, weighed in on the rise of right-wing extremism, who becomes a terrorist, what to expect under the Biden administration and more.

What is the greatest terrorist threat confronting the U.S. right now?

Definitely it is right-wing terrorism and probably has been since the '80s. In contemporary times, the extent of Islamist terror is really only from the late 90s to a decade ago because the Islamic State, while threatening Europe, wasn't much of a threat to the United States, not in a way that Al Qaeda had been. But definitely right-wing domestic terrorism, has always been the threat. And I don't want to say it’s been ignored, but they've always been undercounted and underplayed for a variety of reasons.

Are you seeing right-wing terrorism is on the rise around the world?

Well, it's definitely true, at least in western democracies, in Europe and in North America. Germany has a big problem with growing right-wing extremism, always has had a problem, obviously with right-wing extremism. But it's growing again. There are various Russian nationalist groups. And France, and the Netherlands, and Britain, it seems to be a common conundrum in reaction to the contemporary era, that's for sure.

What do you see as the commonalities across these different nations?

They're all basically struggling with the exact same questions of how globalization and a shift away from manufacturing in western countries has basically eroded economic bases of prosperity, widening inequality. The amount of social inequality is just vast. The gap is growing remarkably, and then combined with a kind of laissez-faire immigration and open borders in the European Union (EU). It definitely creates an opportunity for scapegoating. And I don't want to say it's manufactured because a lot of it isn't exactly manufactured, but these fringe groups that have always existed are now finding national allies in established political parties. Obviously, we see that in the Republican Party in the U.S., but you see that in Europe as well. These fringe right-wing parties are less fringe. They're actually in parliament. They've figured out that they can mobilize grievances of nationalism and xenophobia to turn out some portion of the voting public.

They're mainstreaming.

Exactly. That's a good way to put it. It's the mainstreaming of grievances.

Who becomes a terrorist? What are the factors that cultivate that ground for them to grow? You've mentioned social inequality. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

So, that's on the vast population level. Yes, inequality, it's not that it creates terrorism, but it definitely creates the environment in which you would expect fringe groups to grow to some degree. At the individual level, there's a ton of research on who radicalizes, who joins. It's not specific to the right-wing, but usually it is people who are relatively socially isolated, relatively unsuccessful in life—unsuccessful, whatever that means, but don't tend to have stable incomes or families, etc. That makes it sound like it’s kind of deviant lone wolves who become terrorists. And that's not exactly the case because another way, another pathway into terrorism is the radicalization through participation and just regular social movements. And you see that a lot.

In the case of the American right wing, what's actually really fascinating about the Capitol riot is who participated in that. Now, I wouldn't want to call that terrorism for a variety of reasons. But there's an initial analysis by some people, political scientist Robert Pape at University of Chicago, and they're just looking at people who have been charged in the Capitol riot. And it's less than 20%, I think 10% of them belong to these established right-wing organizations like Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters, and things like that. And the majority are just run-of-the-mill people, white Americans. They're your dentist and your car repairman. One of the more prominent ones I read about is a woman who worked at a farmers market in Pennsylvania. So that, in some ways is somewhat different, that there would be that kind of mass participation. So in some ways, I think when we look at the Capitol riot, it's actually better to think of the tools of social movements, collective action rather than the tools of terrorism.

Do you see any impact either directly or indirectly due to COVID-19?

I think we can directly trace this back to the pandemic. If we think of essentially what is entirely unprecedented, the amount of social disruption that has occurred in the last year, unprecedented in our lives at least, it basically creates a lot of pent-up emotional energy as micro sociologists might call it. And I think we saw that in the racial justice protests over the summer. That would not have happened, I don't think, without the context of the pandemic. And in the same way, I don't think we would see such kind of sharp extremist anti-government challenges that were emerging in the fall without the pandemic, without the kind of the social stress that that has been done on individuals and material stress in terms of unemployment. But like the social stress, you don't see your friends, you don't see your family, you're out of your routine lives. There's actually an old tradition in studying movements and collective action, which argued that they emerge when everyday lives are unsettled, only when our routines are disrupted, then they are more likely to emerge. And scholars of movements don't really talk about that anymore. But it seems really obvious that this is a case where that is what is going on.

Because it creates psychological distress, so you have social unrest as an outcome. Would you say that's right?

Yes. And not just psychological, but the kind of metaphor I think of is people pacing like a caged lion. And those large cats are never really quite happy at the zoo. You can tell if they could get through that fence, they want to eat you. And that's the image I have of everyone stuck at home pacing. And then when the opportunity came to leave the house and do something different, then this is what you saw.

Is there more extremism coming from a particular ideology?

Historically, if we look back 40 to 60 years ago, the left's most extreme elements were basically repressed. They were repressed by law enforcement, and they were purged by establishment politics. You know, you can't be a radical animal rights activist and say you want to get up and burn down every mink farm, and then run for Congress and get elected as a Democrat. That just isn't going to happen. So, the few radical animal rights activists who are willing to sneak into the wilds and burn down horse corrals…they're marginal to the politics of the American left. And that is a consequence of the process that happened in the '60s and '70s, of the radicalization of young leftist activists and then their suppression by the police and their complete rebuke by the Democratic establishment.

So essentially, in some ways, what I think the process we are witnessing now on the right is the process we saw, say, like '68 through '75 on the left, is an increasing kind of militancy, conspiratorial thinking, fringe elements seeming dominant, but essentially, it'll probably burn itself out.

Tell us more about your recently published paper on terrorism labeling.

It's titled: "Repertoires of Terror: News Media Classification of Militant Groups, 1970 to 2013," co-authored with Eric Schoon, in the journal Socius. It’s an extension of my prior work that I was doing on how governments designate terrorism. So, it's essentially the same question, but here, it's how do media label terrorism. We have data on several thousand terrorist organizations from 1970 through 2013. And we have their appearance in The New York Times, the Associated Press, and The Times of London. And so, we have just a way of accounting for how often they appear in the media. And we also look to see if they were discussed in the context of terrorism.

A good example of this is the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in 2018. Nobody knew who was responsible for them at first. So thus, nobody knew what the claim or the goal was. But because they were suicide attacks, they immediately got read as terrorism. You needed no other information. You didn't need to know who did it. You didn't need to know why they did it. All you needed to know is that it was suicide attacks on civilians, boom, it's terrorism, it doesn't matter. And then it turns out, it wasn't even who everybody thought was the perpetrator, it was sympathizers of the Islamic State. It wasn’t Tamil separatists, which was everyone’s first assumption. So it's that sort of thing, every time an event happens, the question emerges, “Is this terrorism or not terrorism?” And then the only information or the information that is usually first available is just the description of the event itself, what was done, what tactic was used. That becomes the first heuristic people use.

And you see that repeatedly too with the white nationalist mass shooter, as in Christchurch, New Zealand or Dylann Roof in South Carolina, or El Paso, Texas. The El Paso case is also a good example. There's a mass shooting at this Walmart and very quickly, it's determined that it is terroristic, that there is a manifesto out there. Less than 24 hours later, there's also a mass shooting in Columbus, Ohio, and people say, "Oh, no, this is another instance of terrorism because it seemed to fit. It was a gun. It was a white guy. It looked like the same tactic." But in fact, it wasn't. It was just personal grievance.

Do you see an immediate instinct to label things as terrorism then by the media, or is there a lag?

It's the immediate question. And if you see developing stories, they always take on that pattern in some ways of the first report will be there was a man with a knife who killed somebody. The second report will be a terrorist with a knife, right? The first is just the raw, then is the interpretation, and then as more information flows in that interpretation is refined one way or the other. But it really seems to be the tactic, that is the first heuristic.

With a new presidential administration, what do you anticipate happening on the extreme right as the left is advancing some of its objectives? Will it foment right-wing terrorism, will it cause a rise, what do you anticipate?

I think we're going to see two things. The kind of casual supporters of right-wing extremism, I think there are going to be fewer of that in the near-term future. You know, the elderly people who showed up at the Capitol and then streamed in and kind of milled about and didn't know what to do and then went home, I think we're actually going to see them turned off. None of the major protests and actions that were feared to take place after January 6 actually took place, at the inauguration or other state capitols...because there's now real cost to it. And that is one thing that law enforcement can do. When you start arresting and charging people in a serious, sustained way, it can radicalize the hardcore, but it actually severs the hardcore from their casual base of support. I think we'll probably see increasing radicalization of hardcore right-wing extremists and less hangers-on. So, their rallies and protests will not be as well attended, but they will increasingly be more extreme in their rhetoric and perhaps action.