Don Lemon’s comments on American extremist violence: accurate but divisive

9th November 2018

Over the course of the past two weeks, a slew of terrorist attacks has shaken the country to its core. There was the Trump-obsessed stripper DJ Cesar Sayoc who sent a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and left-wing celebrities. There was the shooting of two black customers at a Kentucky Kroger by Gregory Bush. Security camera footage showed that he first tried to enter a majority-black church, indicating that the attack was motivated by racist extremism. And most recently, there was the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue by Robert Bowers, who killed 11 worshippers with his AR-15. He posted on his social media hours before the shooting, blaming HIAS (The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) for helping to bring in “invaders who kill our people.”

The combined effect of these attacks, and our President’s predictable response to them, has been profound. And one of the most polarizing of these responses was that of CNN anchor Don Lemon.

In an on-air conversation with fellow CNN host Chris Cuomo, Lemon urges his viewers to avoid “demonizing people,” talking mostly about the vitriol directed at the migrant caravan currently headed towards the southern border. He immediately follows these comments by saying that we have to

“realize that the biggest terrorist threat to this country is white men, mostly radicalized to the right, and we have to start doing something about them.”

His comment caused quite the uproar on the political right, from prominent political pundit Ben Shapiro to the President’s own son Donald Trump Jr. Lemon was criticised for singling out white males as being disproportionately involved with terrorist attacks in the United States, despite voicing his plea to avoid demonized attacks a mere moments beforehand.

There is an element to these complaints that is justified. Even though Lemon did clarify that most of these men were motivated by far-right ideologies, it is important to avoid insinuating that terrorism committed by white men is somehow a problem with the whiteness of their skin, as many of his critics interpreted him as doing. Whether this is what Lemon meant or not, it remains a fact that a significant portion of the country did hear it this way, and that should not be taken lightly. Unless their terrorist acts are explicitly motivated by white supremacy, it obfuscates the issue to focus on the perpetrator’s race instead of their ideology. Even when they are clearly motivated by race, it remains the case that the vast majority of white men do not subscribe to the view of white superiority. Accordingly, comments of this sort serve to alienate the members of that group who are unable to read between the lines, and feel personally attacked by this sort of rhetoric.

However, he is not factually incorrect in his claim that most terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by white men: specifically, white supremacists and anti-government extremists. A study carried out by the New America think tank in 2015 showed that nearly twice as many people have been killed in the United States by these two groups as have been killed by jihadists. This difference has only increased in size since that time.

It is more uncomfortable for many of us to denounce terrorist acts when they are committed by those who happen to share some of the same characteristics that we do: immutable or not. But it is crucial that we do our best not to demonize people, as Don Lemon rightly pointed out. It is also vitally important to address problems of extremism directly and forcefully, without concern for political correctness, if we are to develop optimal strategies for combating them.