Exaggerating the threat of right-wing violence stifles legitimate dissent
This article is part of a package on right-wing violence and militias. For a counterpoint from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s magazine Intelligence Report, read A Conspiracy of Hate . And for an interview with the editor of Intelligence Report, read Hate, Ink. .
On June 10, 2009, an elderly man entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, raised a rifle, and opened fire, killing security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns.
The killer was soon identified as James Wenneker von Brunn, an 88-year-old neo-Nazi. Von Brunn acted alone, but the murder was quickly linked, in a free-associative way, to the assassination 10 days earlier of the Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller. This, we were told, was a “pattern” of “rising right-wing violence.”
More imaginative pundits tried to tie the two slayings to a smattering of other crimes, from an April shootout in Pittsburgh that killed three cops to a year-old double murder at a Knoxville, Tennessee, Unitarian church. The longest such list, assembled by the liberal blogger Sara Robinson, included eight diverse incidents linked only by the fact that the criminals all hailed from one corner or another of the paranoid right. One of the episodes involved a mentally disturbed anti-Semite who had stalked a former classmate for two years before killing her in May. “This is how terrorism begins,” Robinson warned.
Crime wave established, the analysts moved on to denounce the unindicted instigators. Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News and World Report pinned the museum guard’s death on “promoters of hate,” adding, “If yesterday’s Holocaust Museum slaying of security guard and national hero Stephen Tyrone Johns is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don’t know what is.” In the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman warned that “right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.”
We’ve heard ample warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president, and we’re sure to hear many more throughout his term. But we’ve heard next to nothing about the paranoia of the political center. When mainstream commentators treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement, they unwittingly echo the very conspiracy theories they denounce. Both brands of connect-the-dots fantasy reflect the tellers’ anxieties much more than any order actually emerging in the world.
When such a story is directed at those who oppose the politicians in power, it has an additional effect: The list of dangerous forces that need to be marginalized inevitably expands to include peaceful, legitimate critics.
In the popular imagination, the militia movement of the ’90s was a paranoid pack of racists plotting terrorist attacks. University of Hartford historian Robert H. Churchill calls this “the narrative of 1995,” a story line cemented after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that year. “In this narrative,” Churchill writes in To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement (University of Michigan Press, 2009), “the militias and the Patriot movement took on the guise of the perfect, racist ‘other,’ and the threat they posed was best articulated by [civil rights attorney] Morris Dees’ apocalyptic vision of a ‘gathering storm.’ ”
This vision was pushed by a collection of groups dedicated to tracking the radical right, notably the Southern Poverty Law Center, of which Dees is a cofounder, and the Anti-Defamation League. It dominated the media.
“In news coverage, popular novels, episodes of Law and Order, and movies such as Arlington Road,” Churchill writes, “the public became well acquainted with the archetypal militiaman, usually portrayed as warped by racial hatred, obsessed with bizarre conspiracy theories, and hungry for violent retribution.”
In Searching for a Demon, a detailed 2002 study of how the movement was portrayed, Indiana University sociologist Steven Chermak summed up the militiamen’s media image: They were “irrational terrorists—a dangerous, growing outsider threat that needed eradicating.”
The figures who crafted this image often traced the militia movement to a single weekend in 1992, when Peter J. Peters, an anti-Semitic preacher associated with the racist Christian Identity movement, organized a gathering of the far-right tribes in Estes Park, Colorado. About 160 people reportedly attended; one of them, John Trochmann, later played a significant role in the militia milieu. By this account, the militias were a direct sequel to the violent racist underground of the 1980s, represented by such groups as the Aryan Nations and the Order. (The latter was a terrorist gang that robbed banks, counterfeited money, and murdered a Jewish talk radio host.) If the militias didn’t seem to express the same set of concerns, that was merely a mask. In The Eliminationists, published in 2009, Seattle-based journalist David Neiwert—one of the movement’s most prominent critics—writes that the militias were “specifically geared toward mainstreaming some of the basic tenets of [the racist right’s] worldview.”
Churchill offers a more persuasive origin story. By his account, the militias overlapped with the older, broader populist right, but their origins were distinct. The militia movement began to congeal not in 1992 but in the early months of 1994, as activists reacted to the lethal federal raid on the Branch Davidian church near Waco, Texas. Rather than tracing the phenomenon back to groups like the Order, Churchill uses a series of case studies to explore the long American tradition of armed resistance to intrusive government.
The militias of the 1990s, he argues, were reacting primarily to the rise of paramilitary police tactics. Their causes célèbres—the disastrous standoffs in Waco and in Ruby Ridge, Idaho—were only the most visible examples of what could go wrong when police officers regarded themselves as soldiers rather than peace officers. The militias formed and grew, Churchill writes, as their members “came to the conclusion that the federalization and militarization of law enforcement had created a paramilitary culture of violence.” He backs up his interpretation with many quotes from militia figures, including denunciations of the beating of Rodney King and the rape of Abner Louima, a Haitian man whom New York police sodomized with a broomstick in 1997.
Neither McVeigh nor his accomplices, James and Terry Nichols, turned out to be members of militias. After the Oklahoma City attack, a Michigan Militia spokesman said his group’s only contact with the trio had come when James Nichols showed up to speak during the “open forum” portion of a meeting. By that account, Nichols attempted to distribute some literature, urged everyone to cut up their drivers’ licenses, and was eventually asked to leave.
While the press sometimes described the militia movement as a simple continuation of the 1980s racist right, the leaders of the older groups weren’t so quick to recognize the new crew as their children. “They are not for the preservation of the white race,” Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler complained to New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl in Karl’s 1995 book The Right to Bear Arms. “They’re actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others.”
That’s not to say that members of the racist right didn’t join militias, make an effort to recruit from the militias, or try to capitalize on the militias’ notoriety. Some of them appended the word militia to their groups’ names in the 1990s, giving us organizations like the tiny Oklahoma Constitutional Militia, led by an anti-Semite who’d been kicked out of the mainline militia movement. But even as bigots sometimes appeared in militia circles, so did blacks, Hispanics, and Jews. Churchill divides the militia movement into two distinct though sometimes overlapping tendencies: the constitutionalists and the millenarians. The former organized in public, emphasized gun rights and other civil liberties, and saw themselves as a deterrent to repression and abuse. The latter often organized in secret cells, emphasized elaborate conspiracy theories, and saw themselves as survivors in the face of a coming apocalypse. The millenarians were more likely to tolerate racists, while groups in the constitutionalist wing sometimes went out of their way to pick political fights with white supremacists.
Militia critics nonetheless went through incredible contortions to paint antigovernment populists as bigoted thugs. A representative text here is the 1996 book A Force upon the Plain, written by attorney Kenneth Stern. Stern essentially argued that when militia members weren’t racist themselves, they were racist dupes. When their conspiracy theorists fretted over an international cabal led by Freemasons, the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, Stern suggested, they were really imagining a cabal led by Jews. Their theories, he wrote, were “rooted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, because the worldviews were structurally similar. “The militia movement today believes in the conspiracy theory of the Protocols,” Stern concluded, “even if some call it something else and never mention Jews.”
This argument resembled Woody Allen’s syllogism: Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates. And Stern’s history was as bad as his logic. The Protocols did not emerge until the late 19th century and was not widely popularized until 1903. Anti-Masonic theories were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first anti-Illuminati hysteria broke out in 1797.
An even odder argument held that the militias were, in effect, a gateway drug. Stern attributed this idea to Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network, who compared the movement to a funnel. People enter it for many reasons, he acknowledged—to protest taxes, regulations, gun control, or some other policy. But as they’re sucked in, they begin to embrace conspiracy theories and revolutionary rhetoric. At the far end of the funnel are the hardcore bigots. Not all the militia members are at the funnel’s eye, Stern conceded, but that was where they were heading.
This theory would make sense only if white supremacy were the logical conclusion of opposing globalism and federal power. But you’d expect the most radical members of such a movement to embrace a radical decentralism, not racism. Perhaps anticipating this objection, Stern argued that decentralist rhetoric is in itself racist—that the idea of states’ rights “has always been used to shield local governments from criticism over discriminatory practices.”
So anyone critical of centralized power, from governors protesting unfunded mandates to eco-conscious locavores, is potentially a part of the problem. That’s a mighty big funnel.
When you blur the boundaries of a scapegoated group, there’s a useful side benefit: You can discredit mainstream as well as radical political opponents. There was a turning point in the mid-’90s standoff between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a moment when the White House was able to start setting the terms of the debate and the GOP went on the defensive. In most accounts, the shift came when the Republicans’ willingness to “shut down” the federal government backfired during the budget battle at the end of 1995. But the April bombing in Oklahoma City and the militia panic that followed were at least as important in shifting the grounds of the argument. They allowed Clinton’s supporters to play up the “extreme” antigovernment rhetoric coming from Gingrich’s supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the “extremism” of McVeigh and the militias.
A similar dynamic is at work today. When pundits weave a small number of unrelated incidents into a “pattern” of crime, then link it to the rhetoric of Obama’s opponents, it becomes easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal critics on the right, just as a red scare makes it easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left.
Last April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the threat of “right-wing extremism.” Depending on whose interpretation you prefer, the paper either defined extremism far too broadly or failed to define it at all. “Right-wing extremism in the United States,” the department said, “can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial, or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
The charitable reading of this passage is that it’s a sloppily phrased attempt to list the ideas that drive different right-wing extremists, not a declaration that anyone opposed to abortion or prone to “rejecting federal authority” is a threat. But even under that interpretation, the report is inexcusably vague. It focuses on extremism itself, not on violence, and there’s no reason to believe its definition of extremist is limited to people with violent inclinations. (The department’s report on left-wing extremism cites such nonviolent groups as Crimethinc and the Ruckus Society.)
As Michael German, a policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote after the document surfaced, the bulletin focuses “on ideas rather than crime.” One practical effect, German noted, is that the paper “cites an increase in ‘rhetoric’ yet doesn’t even mention reports that there was a dirty bomb found in an alleged white supremacist’s house in Maine last December. Learning what to look for in that situation might actually be useful to a cop. Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”
When panicky centrists aren’t willing to draw an unbroken line from peaceful conservatives to the violent fringe, they posit a somewhat subtler link. The killers, they acknowledge, aren’t taking their marching orders directly from Fox News and AM radio. But by giving serious attention to theories associated with the fringe right—that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing concentration camps, that Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen—Fox News’ Glenn Beck and other broadcasters are validating the grievances of potential killers, giving them the impression that they aren’t alone. This validation is buttressed by the sweeping, sometimes violent rhetoric about “liberals” that you hear from partisan celebrities, such as Ann Coulter’s joke that McVeigh should have blown up the New York Times building instead. In The Eliminationists and on his blog, David Neiwert tries to establish a chain linking “eliminationist” behavior in American history (lynchings of blacks and Asians, the slaughter of American Indians), eliminationist rhetoric on the mainstream right (the Coulter wisecrack), and von Brunn–style efforts to eliminate people directly.
The theory is interesting, but it has some significant problems. The most important one is that it ignores the autonomy of people on the fringe: not just the radicals who commit the crimes, but also the radicals who don’t commit crimes. There’s a complex ecology at work here, one demonstrated most clearly in those cases when militia members alerted authorities to terrorist plots in their midst. Words have influence, but they influence different people in different ways; you can’t reduce media effects to simple push-pull reactions. Accusing Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn’t so different from accusing pornography of validating rape, Ozzy Osbourne of validating teen suicide, or Marilyn Manson of validating school massacres.
It’s comforting to imagine that violence and paranoia belong only to the far left and far right, and that we can protect ourselves from their effects by quarantining the extremists and vigilantly expelling anyone who seems to be bringing their ideas into the mainstream. But the center has its own varieties of violence and paranoia. And it’s far more dangerous than anyone on the fringe, even the armed fringe, will ever be.
Excerpted from Reason (Oct. 2009), a libertarian monthly covering politics and culture. Jesse Walker is managing editor of that magazine and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press, 2001).