Did they act alone? The media and the “extremists”

By Michelle Chen Jun 10, 2009

Details are trickling in about the suspect behind the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum today. James Von Brunn, an elder of the white supremacist movement, renowned for prolific spew about Jews, Barack Obama, America as a “third-world racial garbage dump,” etc. In the wake of the killing—just days after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller—will the media shift the tone of the public discussion on “extremism?” Even the conservative media has begun connecting the dots, giving a sheepish second look to the Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism that the Foxocracy tried so hard to smear. Among the key points:

Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts. Nevertheless, the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn—including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit—could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.

As noted in our previous post on this brand of extremism, the double standard in public perception is glaring. Somehow, suspected right-wing terrorists are painted as isolated loonies, but even absurdly incompetent, tangentially “Muslim” wannabe terrorists so-called are presented as purveyors of global “jihad.” On the perception of religious motives, Junaid M. Afeef of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago contrasts the different spins surrounding the Tiller killing and the recent deadly shooting at a military recruiting center:

These two murder cases expose the media’s and our legal system’s bias against Muslims. Both crimes seem to fit the definition of terrorism motivated by religious extremism. The media and the legal system, however, are treating these alleged murderers and their crimes very differently. The Muslim murder suspect, Mr. Muhammad, is charged with terrorism [engaging in terrorist acts] along with first degree murder. Mr. Muhammad’s faith has been front and center from the very earliest news reports. The American-Muslim community’s almost immediate repudiation of Mr. Muhammad’s murder was and still is largely ignored. On the other hand, the Christian murder suspect, Mr. Roeder, is not being charged with terrorism. His faith has not been the focus of news reports even though there seems to be ample evidence to suggest that Mr. Roeder espouses extreme, right-wing Christian beliefs. And lastly, the media is giving anti-abortion groups ample opportunity to distance themselves from the murderous actions of one of their own.

John Cole imagines preempting the anti-abortion terror threat using standard operating procedure:

Since there is no doubt that we have a history of anti-abortion domestic terrorism, and since we know that evangelicals already support torture for everyone, when do we get to start waterboarding this guy? Does he have any children whose testicles can be crushed? Will we keep him up for weeks on end in stress positions in extremely cold rooms to get him to break? Beat him? All the right made a very good show of how shocked and appalled they were when this man killed Dr. Tiller, so surely they will not object. So when do we get to start torturing this guy? And of course, the answer should be “NEVER.” Torture is wrong. Torture is immoral. Torture is evil. Torture is illegal. Torture does more violence to our values than it does to the individual being tortured. Torture is unreliable. Torture is counter-productive- everything someone says after being tortured should be treated as suspect. Just do your job and investigate. No need to become as bad as the criminal.

While progressive activists can’t fall prey to the same mass hysteria that has colored the post-9/11 political climate, it’s hard to ignore the link between reactionary ideologies and social anxieties. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that while prominent anti-abortion groups condemned the Tiller murder, everyday white supremacists had no qualms about celebrating. The Homeland Security report examines historical patterns of right-wing radicalization as a product of social frustration, xenophobia and political opportunism:

Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage.

Disturbingly familiar themes, especially for a supposed era of change. Almost makes you wonder why there haven’t been more acts of extremism—at least, not that we’ve read about. Image: Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency