The Paranoid Center

Exaggerating the threat of right-wing violence stifles legitimate dissent

| January-February 2010

  • Paranoid Center

    image by AP Images / Matt Wallis

  • Paranoid Center

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.