The barbaric June 12 attack on a gay club in Orlando represents both the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history and the largest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. As it stands, the assault is also the most significant hate crime in contemporary American history.
We don’t know exactly what motivated the shooter, US citizen Omar Mateen, to target Pulse patrons in Orlando. Initial reports note that he swore allegiance to the Islamic State before the attack, but he also expressed anti-gay sentiments in the days beforehand. Whatever his motivations were, the massacre is a reminder that domestic terror can blossom anywhere–especially when viewed in combination with the potential planned attack at the Los Angeles Pride festival.
A diverse group that includes anti-government and hate groups, domestic terrorists are no longer concentrated in any single geographic center in the US. Indeed, according to new numbers from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Americans may be surprised to find how much hate per capita has taken root in their home state. Americans may be surprised to find how much hate per capita has taken root in their home state.
Membership in anti-government organizations specifically, including both militia and so-called “patriot” groups, has exploded since Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. The SPLC was tracking some 150 groups in 2008. That number jumped to a 2012 peak of nearly 1,400 organizations. Hate groups, which include everything from white supremacists to neo-Confederates to anti-LGBT fundamentalists, haven’t seen quite the same amount of growth. But these groups also climbed from 926 organizations in 2008 to a high of 1,018 in 2011, per the SPLC.
The rise of anti-government groups flagged somewhat under Obama’s second term. But both anti-government and hate groups spiked upwards in 2015, effectively undercutting the argument that an improving economy was helping to tamp down the appeal of fringe movements. If events like the standoff at the Oregon wildlife refuge are any indication, there’s every reason to think 2016 will keep pace.
A recent Rolling Stone article pondered whether a “Confederate Spring” was congealing on the backs of “intensifying white supremacy in the South recently.” But while the recent rise in Confederate apologia is no doubt concerning—and points to a terminal confusion between patriotism and treason in numerous pockets of the country—the South doesn’t own a monopoly on either anti-government or hate groups. Anti-government and hate groups spiked upwards in 2015, undercutting the argument that an improving economy tamps down appeal.
In reality, if we look at SPLC’s figures, Idaho, Montana, Mississippi, Vermont, and South Dakota all rank within the top 10 for both anti-government and hate groups per capita. (I tabulated the numbers myself via data from the SPLC and the US Census for state-by-state populations.) Idaho—home of Ruby Ridge, the Aryan Nations, and state legislators who proudly wave Confederate flags—emerges as the only state in the upper echelon for both anti-government and hate groups per capita. Idaho’s status “is due to historic reasons,” says the SPLC’s Mark Potok. “The whole idea [of groups like Aryan Nations] for about 15 years was pervasive on the right: you have to move to Idaho, away from the miserable elites. Several hundred people moved to Idaho on the basis of extreme right-wing politics.”
Meanwhile, only four of the top 10 states for hate groups (not anti-government) per capita were members of the Confederacy. Delaware, at 7.44 organizations per million people, actually hosts the highest rate of hate groups of any state in the US, although this is probably due in part to its low overall population.
Delaware is followed by Arkansas (7.39 hate groups per million people), Mississippi (6.35), Tennessee (6.21), and South Dakota (5.82), with Vermont (4.79) and New Hampshire (4.51) also cracking the top ten. Washington, DC comes in at a staggering 19.03 hate groups per million. But that’s less to do with recruitment tactics and more because of the concentration of national headquarters for groups like the Family Research Council and the Nation of Islam. Only four of the top 10 states for hate groups (not anti-government) per capita were members of the Confederacy.
Some of the data reinforce long-standing reputations associated with US regions. For instance, half of the states with the dozen highest rates for anti-government groups can be found in the West, including Alaska (14.90 groups per million people), Wyoming (13.65), Idaho (12.09), and Montana (10.65). Nevada, which produced the 2014 Bundy standoff, comes in at number 11, just between South Dakota and New Hampshire.
Another clumping of disaffection, however, can be found in New England. Indeed, New Hampshire and Vermont can each be found in the top dozen rates for both anti-government and hate groups per capita—a reality that challenges Vermont’s crunchy reputation. “The ‘patriot movement’ … is predominantly a Western, rural movement,” J.J. MacNab, a fellow with George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, says. But “New England picked up the revolutionary fever, and the South saw it as a new civil war.”
This isn’t a perfect metric, of course. Membership numbers in particular are becoming increasingly difficult to monitor. “Tracking this movement is almost impossible,” MacNab noted. “Tracking this movement is almost impossible. The size is somewhat staggering.” “My best guesstimate for the size [of “patriot” group membership] is somewhere in the 200,000 range with another 300,000 dipping their toes in the ideological pool. … The size of the movement is somewhat staggering.”
Meanwhile, as evidenced by Mateen and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, the number of putative “lone wolf” shooters—terrorists radicalized by conspiratorial extremism online—is almost certainly on the rise.
“Roof is a great example of lots of things,” Potok says. “Fifteen years ago I didn’t think it would be possible radicalized [online] to the point of carrying out a terrorist act … But it’s almost unheard of at this point for groups to be involved in this kind of political violence.”
These statistics suggest a paradox: While there has been a surge in organized anti-government and hate groups under the Obama administration, it’s the lone wolves who have proven the deadliest over the past few years. Given the fallout from Orlando—in addition to the domestic terror shootings in Oak Creek, Isla Vista, and Charleston—there’s little reason to think that will change anytime soon.