Extremism in America: A Surge in Violence

Violent attacks involving extremist ideology began to rise in the last decade, but officials were slow to recognize homegrown threats. This is the fourth episode of a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate.

During the 2010s, while the U.S. was largely focused on terror threats from abroad, violent attacks involving white supremacists and anti-Semitic individuals began to rise, including a shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C., and at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in Charleston, indicated that he was trying to start a race war. Why was the government slow to shift its focus from foreign threats to homegrown extremists?

A deadly mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012, by a white supremacist was a catalyst in changing the focus. After the attack, “I was asked if I would testify before Congress about the domestic extremist threat,” Daryl Johnson, a former Homeland Security official and leading expert on extremism, told Retro Report. “My message was this threat is real and it is growing.”

But his testimony attracted little attention – at least at first. “The disheartening thing was Dick Durbin, for the first 20 to 30 minutes, was the lone senator attending,” Johnson said. “No Republicans attended.”

Detection and enforcement efforts at that time were focused on international terrorism, in part because of the scale and scope of the threats. “I don’t think people took it as seriously as they should have,” Senator Durbin told us. “It’s spreading. And that’s something we didn’t want to hear.”

Defining violent attacks by extremists as domestic terrorism would have had benefits, said Javed Ali, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “Potentially we could have gotten ahead of some of these threats, or at least called them something else. That would have given a different context to the threat and perhaps led to different decisions about what to do,” he said. “But we didn’t, and we’re left with the situation we’re in now.”

This is the fourth episode of a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate, on the roots and rise of hate in America and across the globe. Leadership support for Exploring Hate is provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Antisemitism. To learn more about Exploring Hate and for a full list of funders, visit pbs.org/exploringhate.

  • Series Senior Producer and Writer: Scott Michels
  • Series Supervising Editor: Brian Kamerzel
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Editor: Heru Muharrar