The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Karyn Sporer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine and is a principal investigator for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology and Education Center. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of any group with which she is affiliated. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
On the most recent anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, former Vice President Mike Pence falsely claimed we have gone “20 years without another major terrorist event on American soil,” when in fact our country, including Maine, continues to be a hotbed for violent extremism.
In the 20 years since 9/11, there have been more than 500 attacks on U.S. soil, resulting in hundreds of fatalities and thousands of injuries. The perpetrators encompass a variety of extremist types: white supremacists and nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-government extremists, antisemites, incels and jihadists.
Despite such variety, Americans are socialized to fear only jihad and to label the Islamic extremist as our number one enemy. It is hard to argue that jihadists do not pose at least a small threat: Since 9/11, there have been 17 attacks with fatalities perpetrated by individuals motivated by jihadist ideology.
However, the reality is that since 9/11 more Americans have been killed by far-right nationalists than jihadists, with conservative estimates at 114 and 107 fatalities, respectively. Since 2015 alone, far-right extremists, white supremacists and nationalists, and anti-government extremists have perpetrated most attacks in the U.S., accounting for 267 plots and 91 fatalities.
Many of these events are easy to remember. In 2019, Patrick Crusius murdered 23 people at an El Paso Walmart because he was triggered by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” A year earlier, Robert Bowers shouted “all Jews must die” while gunning down 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In 2015, Dylan Roof wanted to start a race war and murdered nine Black parishioners during worship at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Most recently, we saw the murder of a Capitol Police officer when a mob of pro-Trump and far-right extremists breach the U.S. Capitol.
While these events seem far from home, Maine is not without its own extremism problem. We have three active white nationalist hate groups in Maine, including White Albion in Jackman, the Colchester Collection in Machias and, most recently, the Proud Boys in Portland. We even have far-right extremists looking to build a whites-only sanctuary in Aroostook County.
Despite there being only one documented domestic terrorism event since 2015, Maine has seen a huge spike in bias-motivated crimes: There were 83 reported incidents in 2020, which is more than the 71 reported incidents from 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined.
For now, Maine remains a relatively safe place when it comes to the threat of terrorism. However, given the recent rise in hate crimes and the obvious presence of far-right extremism and white supremacy in our state (including among our elected officials), now is not the time to close or defund Maine’s only counterterrorism task force: the Maine Information and Analysis Center.
Many of us share state Rep. Charlotte Warren’s concerns about the agency’s questionable policing strategies. But Maine needs the Maine Information and Analysis Center to help counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism. Gov. Janet Mills’ quiet signing of Warren’s bill to increase police transparency is a good start for improving the center’s accountability and reputation. I can only hope that increased transparency will also increase community trust in the center and law enforcement more broadly.
In the end, it remains unclear what Pence has been paying attention to since 9/11 or how Pence defines a “major terrorist event.” Did he forget that he himself was a primary target of the terrorists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6? Or is his denial a symptom of America’s long tradition of ignoring violence by white supremacists and far-right extremists? Regardless of the answers, if Maine ignores the threat posed by violent extremists, the next mass casualty event might be in our very own backyard.