The “Left-Wing Terrorism” Narrative Doesn’t Understand Violence


white supremacists and alt-right individuals who committed acts of political violence

The Alexandria, Virginia Shooting and the Hollow “Left-Wing Terrorism” Narrative


By Tariq Khan

The shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia last Wednesday has been followed by a predictable flurry of disingenuous and opportunistic narratives from politicians, corporate media outlets, and the right-wing about the rise of “left-wing terrorism” in the current political landscape. This is not only false but in fact works to obscure the larger reality of violence in America and the world while also demonizing the left and making invisible the much greater violence of the right-wing and especially of the state.

The narrative of the “rise in left-wing terrorism” revolves around the fact that the shooter worked as a volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign during the Democratic primaries.

Both politicians and corporate media have become fixated on the supposed trend with for instance Newt Gingrich blaming the shooting on a pattern of “hostility” by the left — what’s telling though is that the focus on “left-wing violence” ignores the far larger and pattern of the far-right.

The Pervasive Violence of the Far-Right

According to an expert on political extremism interviewed by NPR, for murders that can be categorized as committed by domestic political extremists over the past ten years, an overwhelming 74% were committed by right-wing extremists, while only 2% were committed by left-wing extremists.

Since Trump’s election we’ve seen several attacks against mosques, Sikh temples, and Jewish cemeteries. On the night of Trump’s inauguration a supporter of “alt-right” fascist Milo Yiannopoulos shot a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in the stomach during a protest of his talk at the University of Washington in Seattle. Last month a young white man who was a member of the fascist Facebook group “Alt-Reich: Nation” murdered black University of Maryland student Richard Collins III by stabbing. Only a few weeks ago a white supremacist man in Portland who participated in a far-right “free speech” rally stabbed two people to death and injured others who intervened to stop him from his loud anti-Muslim harassment of two black girls on the train. These are only a few of literally hundreds of recent violent assaults and murders committed by right-wing extremists.

This kind of violence is proliferating within the context of “alt-right” fascist organizations publicly mobilizing “free speech” rallies and expanding onto university campuses as they are emboldened by Trump and his gang of white supremacist bullies taking office. However, it is important to keep in mind that while we are seeing an insurgency of white supremacist vigilante violence, this has always been a feature of the American political landscape and is much older than the Trump administration.

Vilification and Violence

So why are politicians and media pundits making such a big deal of so-called “left-wing terrorism”? Historically, the vilification of the left as a violent threat is accompanied by increased state repression and vigilante violence against leftists during moments when state and capitalist hegemony is weakening. In other words, people are increasingly losing faith in the state and capitalist institutions and looking to leftist alternatives such as socialism and anarchism. Vilification and repression is how state and capitalist institutions attempt to maintain their domination.

On the rare occasions when there are political acts of violence that are directed up the social hierarchy, such as the recent shooting in Alexandria, it is important to understand the underlying causes. Some view this case within a context of mass shootings while others view it as political violence. Other have importantly pointed out connections between mass shooting and toxic masculinity: that mass shooters are overwhelmingly men or boys, and that they often have a history of misogynist or cis-hetero-patriarchal violence. The Alexandria shooter fits this description, a man with a history of misogynist abuse.

There also seems to be political motivation, which is what most mainstream media stories have focused on: the shooter’s support for Sanders and disdain for Republican policies. Many people are being harmed by policies that increase economic inequality and decrease working and sub-working class people’s access to resources. With the level of economic, political, and racial injustice the state perpetuates, frankly it is a wonder that violent attacks against congressmen are so rare. Political violence directed up the social hierarchy is an inevitable byproduct of the daily injustice the state sends down the social hierarchy. It seems that people who are serious about preventing these kinds of tragic and suicidal acts should be thinking about two things: 1) How we, as a society, socialize men and boys, and how we might challenge cis-hetero-patriarchal social conditioning, and 2) How we might organize society so that people are not so isolated, hopeless, and desperate that they have to resort to suicidal violence to be heard. To condemn a shooter but not work to overthrow the conditions that produce them is not only futile but hypocritical.

The Greater Violence of the State

Another key aspect in this discussion of violence is the near complete blindness to the pervasive violence of the state. Upon hearing of the shooting US Senator Bernie Sanders quickly condemned the act in statement saying, “I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be — violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs counter to our most deeply held American values.”

But the notion that violence runs counter to “American values” is utter nonsense and should be taken to task. The United States was founded on and expanded through the violence of colonial expansionism (“manifest destiny”) and it’s role in the global economic and political order continues to be maintained through the violence of coups, military invasions and war. As Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, an organizer with the 1960’s civil rights group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), famously said, violence “is as American as cherry pie.” It should also be pointed out though that Sanders fits well within the mainstream of the US political establishment in his continued support of Israel’s violent oppression of Palestinians, support for Obama’s extrajudicial drone assassination program, support for multiple US military interventions, and his past support for expanding the racialized prison system.  

The violence of the state, which is exponentially greater than the violence of any lone-wolf shooter, is obscured only through the heaviest of blinders. One can support violent settler colonization, imperialism, and state repression and still, without a hint of irony, say “violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society.” This is possible because the term “violence” as it is used in the wider U.S. political discourse skips over the violence of the powerful and only refers to violence that is directed up the social hierarchy. The far greater violence that constantly waged downward on the social hierarchy escapes scrutiny or even mention. We can see this at work when the man who shot Congressman Steve Scalise is instantly labeled a “violent extremist,” while Scalise himself is just a good hometown American who loves baseball. Scalise’s past ties to Klansmen and neo-Nazis are not enough for him to be considered a violent extremist. His work to take away poor people’s access to abortion and contraception, to make decent healthcare inaccessible to working-class people, to take away the already meager protections for LGBTQ people against discrimination, and to make it easier for corporations to profit from environmental destruction some how escapes the “political violence” label.

Looking for Alternatives

Understanding why people commit such acts is not the same thing as condoning or encouraging them. Suicidal acts of individual violence, disconnected from and unaccountable to larger social movements are no kind of strategy for radical social change. The violence of the state and capitalist society are social relationships and ways of organizing society for the benefit of a few and the only way to change this are mass social movements from below.

This is not an argument for pacifism though. For example, most anarchists are proponents of community self-defense and collectively confronting and shutting down fascist movements. Many anarchists point to examples of emancipatory mass movements in places such as Chiapas and Rojava, where people took up arms in defense of their communities. Oppressed communities have a right to liberation by any means necessary but these examples have nothing to do with suicidal lone-wolf shooting. The point is not to think strategically in terms of violence versus nonviolence, but rather in terms of what is empowering to people and movements that we care about. The shooting in Alexandria was tragic but ultimately an act of desperation and acts like this are no strategy for liberation. Rather, it requires the steady and often frustrating but rewarding work of collectively organizing horizontal, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist mass people’s movements.

Tariq Khan is a member of Black Rose Anarchist Federation/Federación Anarquista Rosa Negra.

If you are looking for more information on the ideas of anarchism we recommend the introductory article Who Are the Anarchists and What is Anarchism or this podcast episode on Revolutionary Left Radio.