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The Role of National Identity in American Responses to Terrorism

The Role of National Identity in American Responses to Terrorism

Photo credit: Mike Maguire

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Newell, M. (2020). Comparing American perceptions of post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan and transnational violence. Security Dialogue51 (4), 287-304.

Talking points

  • The U.S. response to terrorism, both domestic and transnational, has been rooted in ontological security, meaning that a state will seek to protect and perpetuate its own national identity, resulting in the U.S. government historically overlooking terrorism perpetrated by right-wing groups that aligned with a dominant American national identity.
  • Between 1860 and 1920, widespread and high rates of violence toward Black Americans by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was willfully ignored by the U.S. government because the KKK characterized itself as an “expression of American and Christian values” and its beliefs were considered “normalized” in U.S. society, in that they “perpetuate[d] a certain image or experience of national identity.”
  • Despite their relatively low levels of violence as compared to the KKK, those involved in anarchist terrorism between 1860 and 1920 met with an aggressive U.S. government response and were subjected to immigration bans and widespread deportations because they did not align with a dominant American national identity.


Has the U.S. underreacted to terrorism when perpetrated by right-wing American groups? Michael Newell examines this question by looking at the earliest examples of American terrorism, both domestic and transnational, throughout the 1860-1920 period, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Fenian Brotherhood (Fenians), and anarchists. He argues that the U.S. response to terrorism has been rooted in ontological security, meaning that a state will seek to protect and perpetuate its own national identity. As a result, security threats are identified and addressed based on whether they threaten or align with national identity, not necessarily whether they pose a significant threat of violence. In reviewing historical cases, he concludes that the U.S. government has failed to respond to right-wing groups, despite their higher levels of violence against civilians, because they more closely aligned themselves with a dominant American national identity. 

Terrorism: “the intentional use of violence against civilians for a political purpose used by a range of actors from single individuals to a nation-state.”

Alignment with national identity is determined by current discourse, as articulated by the media and government, surrounding a group’s ideology, membership demographics, and targets of violence. In spite of a group’s choice to use violence to achieve its ideology, if the beliefs underpinning the ideology are “normalized,” then said group can be perceived as aligning with national identity. The demographics of a group’s membership mattered. Although the groups analyzed in this research were primarily composed of white Americans or European immigrants, the media and U.S. government saw differences in the “Americanness” of each group based on nativism, or “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e. ‘un-American’) connections.” Lastly, the group’s intended target, the domestic or transnational civilian population or property that was subject to its violence, informed the group’s alignment with American national identity.

Of the groups analyzed, the KKK was responsible for the most violence, largely against Black Americans, with up to 1,593 deaths and 2,500+ attacks between 1865 and 1920. However, the U.S. government willfully ignored the KKK because the group characterized itself as “an expression of American and Christian values.” Its beliefs were “normalized,” because they “perpetuate[d] a certain image or experience of national identity,” and aligned with the ideology of the Reconstruction-Era Democratic Party. Klansmen were white southerners, some of whom were also Democratic Party officials at the time, who held onto deeply racist beliefs that Black Americans were not truly American. Because the KKK aligned itself with a “dominant conception” of American identity, its violence was not treated as a threat to the U.S. national identity and, therefore, to national security.

The Fenians and anarchists were both primarily composed of immigrants to the U.S., but the government response to their violence was conditioned by the groups’ non-alignment with U.S. national identity, namely due to distinctions drawn by American nativism between the “superior Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and Gothic peoples of ‘old American stock’ and ‘new immigrants’ from southern and eastern Europe.” The Fenian Brotherhood, a movement for Irish independence from the British Empire, embodied a revolutionary streak consistent with values of America’s national identity. Anarchists, however, opposed capitalism and nationalism—in opposition to American national identity. The Irish-American Fenians were perceived as non-threatening immigrants by the U.S. government, while anarchists, who were primarily immigrants of southern and eastern Europe, were viewed as “reckless foreign wretches” by American media. Both groups had similar levels of violence between 1860 and 1920 but distinctively different targets. The Fenians were responsible for 34 deaths and 17 attacks in Canada and England, but because the Fenians solely targeted non-American institutions abroad they were not considered a threat to American national identity. Anarchists accounted for 61 deaths and 8+ attacks in the U.S., including the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 and the bombing of Wall Street in 1920. While the U.S. government responded with “apathy” to Fenian activity, it enacted immigration bans and widespread deportations of southern and eastern Europeans. Because anarchism did not align with American national identity and its targets were distinctly American, anarchists were seen as a greater, more serious security threat to the U.S. government.

While this research focuses on the past, the author asserts that these historical cases can be useful in providing “preliminary observations” that help explain why the U.S. government has underreacted to the present-day right-wing violence of the last two decades. Namely, these new, right-wing groups continue to align with dominant forms of American national identity along the lines of ideology, membership, and targets. Modern forms of American nativism help to explain the outsized response of U.S. officials to domestic and transnational terrorism perpetrated by Muslims or people of Middle Eastern descent despite the low level of violence actually perpetrated by these groups when compared to higher levels of violence perpetrated by right-wing terror groups.

Informing Practice

Right-wing terrorism is a serious problem in the United States, so much so that the FBI reported white supremacist violence constitutes the “majority of domestic terrorism threats.” Earlier this month, the FBI thwarted “a right-wing plot to kidnap” the Michigan governor by arresting over a dozen men, who formed an anti-government militia with a similar ideology to that of white supremacist groups. Around the country, right-wing, white supremacist extremists, are preparing for a civil war. In Michigan, FBI agents demonstrated their commitment to protecting U.S. citizens from violence, regardless of the perpetrator, but this commitment is not as evident in security forces elsewhere in the country.

Portland, Oregon, has a history of white supremacy, therefore it is unsurprising that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) effectively turns a blind eye when right-wing, white supremacist groups invade the city to “hone their paramilitary training.” Despite the known threat these groups pose to residents, PPB willfully fails to take action against them. Police are notably absent or restrained when right-wing groups organize armed with rifles, paint ball guns, and tasers, yet they routinely arrest, tear gas, and beat nonviolent protesters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Right-wing groups are often supportive of police, while Black Lives Matter protesters are generally supportive of defunding police. According to Newell’s analysis, the disparity in police response to these diametrically opposed groups should be understood as connected to the groups’ relative correspondence to national identity. The seemingly preferential treatment PPB provides the racist, white supremacist terrorist groups suggests that PPB views these groups as more aligned with their perception of national identity.

How can the inconsistency of security force response be addressed? In addition to shedding light on why American officials underreact to present-day right-wing terrorism, Newell’s research can illuminate how American officials can successfully respond to terrorism perpetrated by American right-wing groups. American national identity has long centered on white supremacy because, as in Oregon, it was baked into the country’s founding. Although, in the case of Michigan, the FBI responded appropriately, a widespread commitment to protecting American citizens from white supremacist terrorism is not yet evident as evidenced by local police departments’ inadequate response to these groups.  

The changing demographics of the United States—by 2045 the country will be minority white—present an opportunity for elected officials to shift the understanding of national identity away from white supremacy to that of a multiracial and multicultural national identity. Politicians must reckon with the genocidal and racist policies that gave birth to the nation. We must stop venerating white American “heroes” who were slaveholders and committed unspeakable atrocities against Black, brown and Indigenous communities. Celebrating the United States’ diversity through acknowledgment of non-white American heroes via days of reverence and creating legislation specific to the needs of non-dominant groups will broaden the conceptualization of who fits within the American national identity. Expanding the scope of national identity to include non-white Americans will more effectively isolate the dangerous ideologies of right-wing, white supremacist groups, revealing their violence as a threat to that inclusive American national identity. [KH]

Continued Reading

Frey, W. (2018, March 4). The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, census projects. Brookings. Retrieved on October 7, 2020, from

Kavanaugh, S.D. (2020, August 25). Portland police respond to criticism for not intervening in violent downtown clash: “you run the risk of making a bad situation worse.” The Oregonian. Retrieved on October 15, 2020, from

Physicians for Human Rights. (2020). Now they seem to just want to hurt us. Retrieved on October 16, 2020, from

Riski, T. (2020, September 24). Ahead of Saturday’s proud boys rally, 30 local unions and civil rights groups call on Oregon officials to denounce hate. Willamette Week. Retrieved on October 15, 2020, from

Semuels, A. (2016, July 22). The racist history of Portland, the whitest city in America. The Atlantic. Retrieved on October 15, 2020, from

Wilson, J., & Evans, R. (2020, September 23). Revealed: pro-Trump activists plotted violence ahead of Portland rallies. The Guardian. Retrieved on October 12, 2020, from

Key words: historical analysis, right-wing terrorism, transnational terrorism, domestic terrorism, national identity

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