Last month, the New York Times highlighted a study from the New America Foundation on political extremism in the United States. The report found that extremism that could loosely be described as right-wing was responsible for twice as many deaths since 2001 as extremism associated with violent Islamism.

Over at Bloomberg View last week, Megan McArdle pointed out that the authors of the study appeared to tweak their definitions of each term to maximize right-wing violence while minimizing Muslim violence.

I took a little stroll through the underlying data, and on the “jihadist violence” side, the definition is pretty clear: with the exception of one case in which a Muslim who seemed fond of jihadist propaganda beheaded a coworker for reasons that are not entirely clear, the rest of the attacks involved someone with an ideological commitment to radical Islam trying to kill a bunch of people in a way that made it clear that this was about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Counting the other types of extremist terrorism is a little murkier. Some of them are fairly obvious: When a white supremacist starts shooting people at a Sikh temple, I don’t think we need to wonder too hard what his motives were. On the other hand, the data set The Times relies on also includes Andrew Joseph Stack, who you may remember piloted a small plane into an IRS building in Austin. Stack left a manifesto behind, and it doesn’t exactly read like an anarcho-capitalist treatise. Oh, he’s mad at the government, all right, but he’s mad about … the 1986 revision to Section 1706 of the tax code, which governs the treatment of technical contractors. Here are some other things Andrew Stack was angry about:
Its closing lines are “The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.” Labeling this as a “deadly right-wing attack” is beyond a stretch; it’s not even arguably correct.

McArdle goes on to question several other killers the study classified as right-wing, while also pointing out that the study did not include the D.C. snipers in its list of extremist Muslim killers, even though they could arguably be as associated with Islam, as many of the counted killers could be associated with right-wing extremism.

There’s a regrettable script that seems to play out every time news breaks of an attack in the United States — or for that matter in the rest of the Western world. When word first broke of Anders Breivik’s horrific massacre in Norway, right-wing pundits immediately chalked the attack up to Islamic terrorism. (Breivik was an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim white supremacist.) When word first broke of bombs at the Boston Marathon, left-wing pundits postulated they were set off by a tax protester or a tea partyer. Some even openly hoped for some sort of right-wing plot by white people. (The bombs were, of course, set off by two extremist Muslims.)

Inevitably, the left jumps on attacks perpetrated by right-wingers to decry the government monitoring, investigating and restricting the activities of peaceful Muslims, while the right seizes on attacks by Muslims to question why the government is spending so much time and energy investigating right-wing extremism. Too often, both escalate these criticisms to call for more government surveillance and investigation of the groups they find unsavory.

This is likely why pretty much everyone missed the real story about the New America study that was released last month — just how little extremist violence there is in the United States of any kind. According to the study, extremist attacks have killed 74 people in the United States since 2001. That comes out to just over five per year. In a country of 320 million people, that’s an incredibly small number. According to FBI statistics, there were an average of 15,865 homicides between 2002 and 2013. That means, on average, political extremism motivated the killers in .003 percent of U.S. homicides since 2001. That’s statistical noise. It’s about the same number of people killed each year by sharks. (Note: I’m not claiming here that there is no more racism in America, or that violent Islamists don’t exist. Only that neither is responsible for a statistically significant number of homicides in the United States.)

Of course, the New America study may have overlooked some incidents. And the New York Times article points out that there were several attacks that may have been thwarted. But if we were to double, triple or even increase the number by a factor of 10, in a country of 320 million people, we’re still talking about a really small number.

These figures are likely of little comfort to those who lost friends or relatives in these attacks. It’s also true that these attacks are intended to sow fear in entire communities, or in the country at large, so measuring incidents such as the Charleston shooting or the Boston Marathon attacks solely by fatality or casualty figures understates their impact. But if the goal of a terrorist is, by definition, to sow terror, then the success of failure of a terrorist is largely measured by our reaction to the attack. If we let the Boston Marathon attacks scare us into thinking any Muslim-looking person with a backpack might be carrying a bomb, in spite of the fact that by all measures, American Muslims are peaceful, productive and as patriotic as any other ethnic group, then we’re giving the marathon bombers far too much credit. Likewise, if we let the Charleston massacre scare us into thinking there are armies of Dylann Roofs out there ready to start a race war, again in spite of all the available empirical evidence, then we’re letting the Charleston suspect have far more impact on our lives than he deserves to.

Last week, Rep. Michael McCaul introduced a new bill in Congress that would create an Office of Coordination for Countering Violent Extremism within the Department of Homeland Security. McCaul, a Republican, fears radical Islam. But there have been similar calls from the left for more government monitoring of radical right-wingers. This comes after then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced last September that the Department of Justice would embark on a series of new initiatives to counter extremism. He warned that “Few threats are more urgent.”

To see how quickly the fight against exaggerated claims of extremist violence can morph into a vague campaign against extremism generally, look to Britain. Last fall, Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a series of new policies that the Telegraph reported “would allow judges to ban people deemed extremists from broadcasting, protesting in certain places or even posting messages on Facebook or Twitter without permission.” The goal is to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.”

That’s a horrifying prospect. Over the course of U.S. history, the extremist label has been applied to abolitionists, suffragists, antiwar protesters, civil rights protesters and countless other activists who would later become the mainstream. Who is or isn’t an “extremist” under such laws will, of course, ultimately be determined by politicians. Which means the laws will inevitably be used to target groups politicians see as a threat to their power. Atheist groups are afraid the laws will prevent them from criticizing religion. Religious groups fear they’ll be used to target critics of gay marriage, abortion or other religions. Muslim groups fear that they’ll be used to target them. Critics of Muslims fear the same. They’re all right to be worried.

But you needn’t go overseas to see how the fight against extremism can be abused. The last time the government really took aim at right-wing extremism was the 1990s, when federal agencies aggressively targeted gun rights groups, militias and white supremacist organizations. There were countless reported abuses. Waco and Ruby Ridge are the most notable examples, but hardly the only instances of overreach. Perhaps, quite understandably, you aren’t particularly sympathetic to someone like Randy Weaver or David Koresh. (Of course, children also died in both instances, but let’s put that aside for a moment.) But understand that if the goal here is to stop the spread of extremism, both cases became rallying cries and recruiting propaganda for such groups. And despite all the extra-constitutional surveillance, informant abuse and gung-ho militarism of groups such as the ATF and the FBI at the time, none of that was able to prevent the Oklahoma City bombing (though there’s good evidence that it helped inspire it.)

The story is similar with Muslim extremists since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Or, for that matter, since the World Trade Center attack in 1993.) Time and time again, the government announces that it has uncovered a new terrorist cell or thwarted a pending attack. And time and time again, we later discover that the vast majority of the planning was done by an undercover agent or an informant working for the government. The targets of these investigations are inevitably hapless dupes, innocent of any wrongdoing, or Muslims who at worst were guilty of showing too much sympathy or being too polite when an informant started talking about jihad. Yet despite all the surveillance, the informant abuse, the “fusion centers” and the monitoring, the government wasn’t able to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing. Despite the fact that there were warnings they could have caught, they were apparently too busy monitoring Occupy Wall Street protesters.

The new threat is apparently from “lone wolf” attacks. But these attacks are even less preventable than organized attacks. It may be difficult to accept, but there’s really no law that could have kept Dylann Roof from allegedly shooting up that church in Charleston, at least not a law that’s consistent with the values of a free society. Creating new government agencies in charge of monitoring extremism means creating new law enforcement agencies whose leaders will inevitably feel the need to justify their existence by making arrests. That means more monitoring, more surveillance, more undercover stings and more informant-driven investigations into alleged extremists will almost certainly ensnare innocent people, and entice hapless people into committing crimes they otherwise wouldn’t have committed. Perhaps occasionally they’ll also uncover a real plot, and prevent a legitimate extremist from carrying out a legitimate act of violence. But we’ll be creating far more martyrs, and allowing groups with ugly politics to win some sympathy by legitimately painting themselves as victims. And all of this will be to fight an alleged scourge that on average claims about five victims each year.

The only remedy here is for pundits and political groups on all sides of the political spectrum to speak out against government excesses and civil liberties abuses even of people and groups we find abhorrent. It also means speaking up when the threat posed by these groups is exaggerated or presented without context. Extremist violence is incredibly rare in the United States. That doesn’t mean it never happens, or that it isn’t tragic and awful when it does. But it’s okay to recognize the tragedy of a particular event and conclude that there was nothing to be done about it. Doing so doesn’t mean the lives that were lost any less important or meaningful, nor does it make the sheer horror of it all any more palatable. But when a monster commits an inexplicable crime, we do no one any good by insisting that this particular monster could only have been one of an army of them– despite all evidence to the contrary — then insisting that no one feel safe until we’ve destroyed them all.