Do You Really Have More To Fear From White Men Than Middle Eastern Terrorists? Probably, Depending On Your Definitions

By now you've no doubt heard that last week, at least two public figures have suggested that white men represent more of a danger than Middle Eastern terrorists. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings last week told MSN that he is "more fearful" of white men than Syrian refugees. Similarly, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown told an Ohio radio station that most terrorist attacks on American soil since the September 11, 2001, attacks have been carried out by people who "look more like me" (that is, white men) than by Middle Easterners.

Are those men right? Do you really have more to fear from white men than from Middle Eastern terrorists? There's no simple answer to that question for a variety of reasons that will be discussed in this post, but in a general sense the answer is yes, you do have more to fear from white men than from Middle Eastern terrorists (if you live in the United States, that is).

How Do You Even Define "Terrorism"?

The first problem in narrowing down whether or not you have more to fear from white men than terrorists is the very definition of terrorism itself. And when discussing the definition of a word, as good a starting place as any is the dictionary.

Here's how defines terrorism.

"The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes."

The problem with that definition is that it's almost impractically broad. By that definition, simply wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia or attending a KKK rally is an act of terrorism.

That definition also brings hate crimes, such as lynching, or singular acts of murder committed in advance of a political goal (such as murdering a doctor who performs abortions or assassinating a politician), under the umbrella of terrorism.

In order to keep this discussion manageable, for the remainder of this article, "terrorism" will be defined in its most narrow possible terms: an act of violence (bombing, shooting, poisoning) that kills, or intends to kill, a large number of innocent people in the name of advancing a political or religious goal.

How Far Back Do You Want To Go?

When you're discussing terrorism and its perpetrators in the U.S., there are documented crimes -- which today would be considered acts of terrorism even under the narrow definition in the previous paragraph -- going back almost 200 years. Abolitionists and pro-slavery forces killed one another; Mormons fueled by religious paranoia attacked a wagon train of non-Mormons, massacred everyone over the age of seven, and kidnapped younger children to be forcibly given to Mormon families (a tactic repeated in various forms by ISIS in Syria); persons unknown detonated a bomb at a labor rally -- the list goes on.

And in 1995, this happened:

Oklahoma City Bombing [AP Photo/David Glass]
Oklahoma City Bombing [Photo by David Glass/AP]

Once again, it makes sense to insert some parameters into this discussion for the sake of simplicity. And in this case, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks make for as good a starting point as any -- especially since Sherrod Smith used this date in his own discussion of white men being more dangerous than Middle Eastern terrorists.

The Numbers

So if terrorism is defined strictly as an act of mass violence intended to advance a religious or political goal, and if only acts of terrorism carried out since September 11, 2001, are included, here are how the numbers shake out in terms of fatal terrorist attacks (that is, in which anyone other than the perpetrator(s) were killed) in the United States since September 11, 2001.

  • Number of fatal terrorist attacks by Middle Easterners (to include Americans of Middle Eastern descent): 4
  • Number of people killed in terrorist attacks by Middle Easterners (to include Americans of Middle Eastern Descent): 21
  • Number of fatal terrorist attacks by whites: 7
  • Number of people killed in terrorist attacks by whites: 26
  • Number of fatal terrorist attacks carried out by other races (or by an unknown perpetrator): 3
  • Number of people killed in terrorist attacks by other races (or by unknown perpetrators): 17
OK, So That Explains Terrorism, But What About Other Killings?

Excluding terrorists, two of the most prolific mass murderers in the United States have been white men: Colorado theater shooter James Holmes killed 12 people and Sandy Hook school shooter Adam Lanza killed 26 people. In fact, according to a July CNN report, nearly 64 percent of mass killings in the United States have been carried out by white men. Sixteen percent were carried out by blacks, 9 percent by Asians, and dwindling percentages of other races carried out the rest.

But do these numbers mean you have more to fear from white men than Middle Easterners? Actually, it depends on who your friends and loved ones are. You are more likely to be killed by a family member or friend than you are by a stranger. And since whites outnumber Middle Easterners by a huge margin in the U.S., and since far more murders are committed by men than by women, statistically speaking, the odds of you being killed by a white man are far greater than those of you being killed by a Middle Eastern stranger.

So yes, Mike Rawlings and Sherrod Smith are right: You do have more to fear from white men than you do from Middle Easterners.

[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]