I think it was Mark Twain who said there are lies, damn lies and statistics.
Of course, unlike a mere opinion, a reference to a number gives an objective aura to a specific claim. It is no wonder that op-ed writers, this one included, love to pepper their writings with statistics from reliable sources.
We must all be careful, however, to consider the context and format of the statistic. As I teach my students, sometimes a simple transformation of the statistic can completely change its meaning.
In the never-ending-and-in-my-opinion rather useless debate about who is most evil, is the recent assertion that most terrorist acts in the United States are the result of “right-wing violence.”
Vox columnist Sarah Frostenson reported that a New America Foundation study indicated that since 2001 “of the 26 deadly homegrown terrorist attacks, only seven of those attacks were related to Islamic extremism. The other 19 attacks were led by right-wing extremists.”
So there. The FBI should monitor and infiltrate tea party groups, not mosques. Chalk one up for the snarky progressives and against the angry nativists.
But this statistic ignores a fundamental fact: There are a lot more Americans who are right-wing than Muslim. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 0.9 percent or around 2.9 million Americans identify as Muslim. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 38 percent or around 122.4 million American identify as conservatives. This calculates to one terrorist attack for every six million conservatives, and one terrorist attack for every 400,000 Muslims since 2001.
By this reckoning a Muslim is 15 times more likely to be behind a terrorist attack than a conservative. If you like to play the game of who is worse than whom then chalk one up for the angry nativists and against the snarky progressives.
But this is a silly, divisive and dangerous game: The odds any individual Muslim or right-winger being a terrorist are incredibly small. There is no rational reason to be frightened of a young lady in Islamic garb or the guy with a Trump sticker on his pickup truck.
This argument between the angry nativists and snarky progressive as to who is the most evil reminds me of a kindergarten quarrel. We’d all do much better if we recognized that mass murder from any source is horrendous.
I can’t think of a snappy acronym but I’d like to start a group called Citizens United Against Those Who Engage in Mass Murder and We Don’t Really Care Much Why They Do, except that it may give a clue as to how to prevent another mass murderer.
No one likes the idea of police surveillance or undercover operations in religious or civic organizations. However, if any organization is fostering or harboring mass murders, surveillance, infiltration and interdiction are warranted.
As citizens of a constitutional republic, we must demand that such policing itself be subject to judicial oversight, equal treatment and the rule of law. That said, yes mosques, churches, synagogues, right-wing organizations, left-wing organizations and non-affiliated groups are fair game if they facilitate mass murder. And we all are against mass murder.
None of this is to say debates surrounding the availability of guns, the elements of Islam, or the source of violence in American society are out of bounds. Quite to the contrary; we must have a vigorous, robust discussion.
Cecil Bohanon is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a professor of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.