Of course there is violence on the far left. Yet comparing it to the violence on the far right is a mistake — and for some, a trap camouflaged as a comfort.
The most obvious difference is measurable: Seventy-four percent of the 372 people murdered in domestic terror attacks in this country between 2007 and 2016 were killed by extremists from the right, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Conservatives have been encouraged to take offense at the idea that the two poles are not the same distance from the center. But it’s demonstrably untrue that, as Iowa Rep. Steve King said after his fellow Republican, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, was shot by a jobless Democratic zealot living out of his van, “violence is appearing in the streets, and it’s coming from the left.”
On the contrary, recent political violence also skews heavily to the right: Of the 1,094 “hate incidents” logged by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the month after the presidential election, 315 were anti-immigrant, 221 were anti-black, 112 were anti-Muslim, 109 were anti-LGBT, 108 involved Nazi swastikas, 47 were reports of white nationalist flyers, 45 were anti-woman, 33 anti-Semitic, 26 were anti-Trump, and seven involved the KKK.
When it comes to motive, there’s no comparison either: The goal of far-left groups is equality, while what white supremacists want, by their own account, is ethnic cleansing. Groups like Black Lives Matter definitely have some problems. But white supremacist groups like American Vanguard and Identity Evropa and TheRightStuff are a problem.
The view that “they’re all bad” and should be condemned evenhandedly is at best a delusion and at worst a way to excuse the handiwork of hate groups. (That’s such an appealing mirage that a number of conservative news outlets have been duped into running false accounts of antifa violence based on information shared by fake Twitter accounts like @antifaBoston.) But seeing the “two sides” as equivalent benefits those who in another generation bombed a church in Birmingham, Ala., and just this month drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville.
That doesn’t mean I have no quarrel with the Black Bloc anarchists I’ve seen in action at various protests since the ’90s, and I strongly disagree with the current antifa thinking that violence against racists is by definition self-defense. Both strategically and morally, that, too, is a mistake. But it’s not one that shortens the distance between the neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and antifa chants of “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA.”
A couple of the semi-professional far-left protesters I’ve interviewed since Charlottesville do see violence as defensible. One of them, a 25-year-old Kansas City woman who protests with several groups, said that “on occasion, yes,” she has gotten physical while “defending vulnerable groups from a genocidal ideology.”
For example, she put herself between an African-American woman and a white supremacist. “He had swung at her first, and after that we stepped up to defend her, and it turned into a brawl. People I’m associated with are in agreement that with the groups we’re up against, we’ll do what we need to do.” Up against groups carrying AK-47s, what does that look like, and where does that end? In military conflicts in American streets?
“If it comes to that, we’ll deal with it then,” she said, sounding jarringly like that non-model of equality Scarlett O’Hara saying she’ll worry tomorrow since “tomorrow is another day.” She did not agree with me on the power of nonviolence she sees as more a preference than a prerequisite. But her stated goal is “equality on every level, in education, housing, an end to police brutality.”
And if you can’t see the moral daylight between that and the aim of living in an all-white world, then you, too, will be owed the thanks of those who do want blood in the streets.