The Depressing Politics of Terrorist Containment: When Violent Extremism Meets The Rightwing Persecution Complex

When I learned of the mass shooting carried out by a Neo-Nazi White Supremacist at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I felt a mixture of heartbreak, anger, and powerlessness. I’m painfully aware that there’s little I can do to alleviate the still-raw suffering of those who have lost a loved one. Theirs is a feeling of grief and terror that I can scarcely imagine, let alone presume to heal.

I desperately wish that I could say something of value as a minister of the Christian gospel. “No real Christian would commit that type of violence,” or some such response. But I can’t for the life of me see how a “No True Scotsman” explanation serves any interest other than Christian public relations damage control. The fact that no true Christian would murder people doesn’t stop false Christians from carrying out massacres.

It is a natural thing to say, though, this “No Real Christian” response. The reality of violent extremism is that it brings unrelated parties under scrutiny, and some Christians may worry that their entire faith will be tarnished by the actions of a single shooter. The blame, in a situation like this, tends to spill over into the territory of the larger cultural or religious groups for which the extremists claim to speak. Consider the suspicion and misdirected prejudice with which millions of American Muslims have lived in the 11 years following the September 11th attacks. Our national conversation surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” was a display of unabashed, rank xenophobia. It seemed like an amateur hour of nationalist political opportunism as North Carolina Congressional candidate Renee Ellmers released a “Victory Mosque” campaign ad. Ellmers—originally an underdog in her race—now serves as United States Representative for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district.

In cases that the bad guys fall under the umbrella of a minority religious or cultural group, our default mode of reaction at the national level seems to be some sort of updated version of McCarthyism. The threat that exists in the minds and hearts of the socio-cultural majority nearly always dwarfs the threat that exists in the real world.

But that’s not the case when it comes to right-wing terrorist activity in this country. For a couple of reasons, we typically act as if that threat is non-existent. First is that right-wing extremist groups self-identify as subsets of majority religious or cultural groups. And the second reason is that large swaths of American conservatives have something of a persecution complex. Those two factors, as I’ll explain, mix together to form a cocktail of political futility when it comes to right-wing terrorist containment.

First, though, consider the scope of our domestic terrorism problem:

About 4 years ago, a gunman opened fire on a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He killed two people and wounded several others before members of the congregation restrained him. The shooter cited a general hatred of liberals, Democrats, African Americans, and Gay people as the motivation for the attack.

In May of 2009, George Tiller—an M.D. who provided late-term abortions—was shot through the eye while attending church in Wichita.

This past April, a Wisconsin Planned Parenthood clinic was firebombed. This attack was just one of 173 arsons committed against abortion providers since 1977.

Two days ago (at the time of my writing this post) a gunman opened fire in a Sikh Temple, killing 6 and wounding several others.

And just yesterday Mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burnt to the ground.

We have a problem.

We also experience, of course, violent public crimes that appear to lack a coherent political motivation, such as the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It is also the case that these shooters or arsonists, in some cases, do not have any formal organizational ties.  The point here, though, is that the social, political, and ideological infrastructure required to incubate new extremists is undoubtedly in place. In the case of the Oak Creek shooting it’s becoming clear that the alleged shooter ran in Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist circles. So unlike those cases in which the shooter is deemed to be in some way anti-social or mentally ill, we cannot reflexively pull ideology off of the discussion table. After the partisan finger pointing that followed Congresswoman Gabby Giffords shooting, for example, no one was terribly interested in Jared Loughner’s professed ideologies. But in cases like this one the “lone, deranged shooter” narrative doesn’t pass muster.

The threat of institutionalized right-wing extremism didn’t escape the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. In April of 2009, the DHS released a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The DHS reported that although they had “no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists [were] currently planning acts of violence,” the political and economic circumstances in our country were fostering “a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists.” DHS authorities warned, in particular, that white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups would gain membership and enthusiasm due to a) extremely poor economic conditions as well as b) newly invigorated racial animus expressed in response to the election of our country’s first African American president.

Last year, the Washington Post reported that the analytical unit responsible for the DHS report on rightwing extremism had been over the past two years “effectively eviscerated.”  The department “held up dissemination of nearly a dozen reports on extremist groups” and blocked “a digest of domestic terror incidents and the distribution of definitions for terms such as ‘white supremacist’ and ‘Christian Identity.’” Those reports, says a former senior domestic terrorism analyst, were subject to “endless reviews and edits,” whereas reports on Muslim extremism “got through without any major problems.”

Q: Why did the DHS choose to largely ignore the implications of the initial report published in April of 2009?

A: Widespread (mainstream) conservative uproar.

An April 15th article at Fox News summarizes the content of House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith’s opposition to the report as being that “[t]he government considers you a terrorist threat if you oppose abortion, own a gun or are a returning war veteran.” Smith’s colleagues were similarly outraged, charging that the report amounted to “political profiling” against conservatives and military veterans. John Boehner, who was then serving as House minority leader, got in on the action as well, releasing this statement:

[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation. Everyone agrees that the Department should be focused on protecting America, but using such broad-based generalizations about the American people is simply outrageous.

Eventually Boehner and his conservative allies made enough of a stir to pressure Sec. Janet Napolitano into apologizing to veterans and retracting the report.

I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not the outrage was justified, but in some sense that’s beyond the point.

Point: When Rep. Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of American Muslim prompted complaints of over-generalization and racial profiling, those complaints did not gain any serious political traction. Yet, a DHS report on domestic terrorism almost immediately captured the undivided attention of one of our major political parties. One of these things is not like the other.

As mentioned, charges of radicalization or extremism against a particular group tend to spillover into blame directed at a larger social or religious group for which those extremists claim to speak. In the case of the United States’ response to Muslim extremism, the more ignorant among us directed their fear towards anyone vaguely brown looking. As it pertains to homegrown terrorism, the spillover group is conservative, white, gun-owning Christians (CWGOCs). But again you ought to be thinking that one of these things is not like the other.

Muslims, Sikhs, and other American minorities are subject to widespread prejudice and intimidation in the American public sphere. Who, exactly, is victimizing CWGOCs?

Scarcely anyone. That’s where the rightwing persecution complex comes into play. A significant number of CWGOCs are self-victimizing. They’re convinced that their way of life is under serious attack by an ill-defined coalition of Godless liberals. That their persecutors exist, for the most part, only in their cosmological imagination, however, is of no consequence for the politics of curtailing extremism. Certain CWGOCs perceived the DHS report as part and parcel of a larger attack on Christian conservatism, and they responded accordingly.

In actuality, CWGOCs are not in any sense endangered. They all but control the GOP (or are, at least, an incredibly significant voting bloc) and as a result the DHS’s inquiry into homegrown, rightwing terrorism was all but dismantled.

That’s how, at the moment, American politics of extremist curtailment are playing out. As is so often the case, though, knowing how the world works is an entirely different matter than knowing how to work the world. That is, for all of my punditry I still don’t know how to go about changing any of this.

Truth-telling sometimes seems like the most I can do, so here is the truth as I know it: American Muslims and other American minorities who are sometimes mistaken for Muslims face very real discrimination, intimidation and violence. CWGOCs do not experience anything even loosely comparable. The infrastructure to support homegrown, rightwing terrorism exists right here in our back yard, and it is robust. We’ve expended considerably more resources fighting the nebulous threat of American Muslim radicalization than we’ve spent combating homegrown, rightwing terrorism.

I deem all of the above to be nonsensical, immoral, and irresponsible.

And so to those who are suffering and grieving I can only offer a promise: I promise to confront evil wherever I find it and expose falsehood any way I know how. That—more so than prayers or theologizing—is the content of my faith. Consider this blog post a prayer.


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