Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Our little Osamas

Now that the dust has settled from the Lefkow murders, it's clear that the killer was not connected to any known hate group. That idiosyncratic outcome might ordinarily leave us to write it off to the vagaries of crime in our society, but it's worth reflecting a little on what the incident, perhaps incidentally, revealed.

The most striking feature of the incident involved the reaction by the extremist right to the murders: openly cheering them, and urging similar action for other judges. This is consistent, it should be observed, with the far right's historic approach to violence that benefits their cause: Even if they cannot claim credit for it, they will exploit it.

It's called piggybacking, and it was evident, as I've explained previously, in the aftermath of September 11, particularly in the actions of the anthrax killer. The domestic terrorists of the American far right see any kind of violent disturbance as an opportunity to spread chaos, which is the centerpiece of their long-term strategy.

This is why I've argued consistently that any serious "war on terror" will, by its nature, consistently recognize domestic terrorism as a significant component of the real threat that confronts us.

Unfortunately, this has been twisted by some of my critics on the right into something I (for obvious reasons) didn't say, to wit, that "if (and only if) our enemy list is broadened to include right-wing domestic terrorists, then the left will recognize that its values are threatened and react by confronting both the domestic terrorists and the Islamic fundamentalists."

What I am arguing is that any serious war on terror will of its own encompass the domestic-terror threat and deal with it appropriately. The current war on terror is predicated on a symmetrical military response, which is exactly the wrong approach to an asymmetrical threat.

It's not that domestic terrorism should be given the focus of our approach; rather, it's that the failure to focus on it at all leaves us vulnerable in a way that also reveals the incoherence of our antiterrorism policy. The reason I keep stressing our handling of domestic terrorism is that it gives us a prism for understanding what's wrong with our ongoing response to the broader phenomenon of terrorism.

Nicholas Kristof's recent column on our "Homegrown Osamas" touched on some of this, discussing the white supremacists whose ugliness was again on display for all to see in this most recent incident:
After the Oklahoma City bombing, American law enforcement authorities cracked down quite effectively on domestic racists and militia leaders. But Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors 760 hate groups with about 100,000 members, notes that after 9/11, the law enforcement focus switched overwhelmingly to Arabs.

The Feds are right to be especially alarmed about Al Qaeda. But we also need to be more vigilant about the domestic white supremacists, neo-Nazis and militia members. After all, some have more W.M.D. than Saddam.

Two years ago, for example, a Texan in a militia, William Krar, was caught with 25 machine guns and other weapons, a quarter-million rounds of ammunition, 60 pipe bombs and enough sodium cyanide to kill hundreds of people.

We were too complacent about Al Qaeda and foreign terrorists before 9/11. And now we're too complacent about homegrown threats.

The problem was underscored by a recent report in a conservative publication of a plea by white supremacists for an alliance with Islamist radicals:
In a letter posted on its Web site the head of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations offers his thanks to radical Islamic terrorists and extends the group's hand of friendship.

Aryan Nations National Director August Kreis writes (, "We as an organization will also endeavor to aid all those who subvert, disrupt and are (sic) malignant in nature to our enemies. Therefore I offer my most sincere best-wishes to those who wage holy Jihad against the infrastructure of the decadent, weak and Judaic-influenced societal infrastructure of the West. I send a message of thanks and well-wishes to the methods and works of groups on the Islamic front against the jew such as Al-Qaeda and Sheik Usama Bin Ladin, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and to all Jihadis worldwide who fight for the glory of the Khilafah and the downfall of the anti-life and anti-freedom System prevalent on this earth today.

Kreis continues by saying (sic), "I ask our Islamic fellow fighters against jewry to remember the co-operation between Mufti Haj Mohammad Amin al-Husseini and Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler during the last century and to remember that all that is of the past it is our duty to surpass!"

Allying themselves with "real" terrorists has always been something of a fantasy of the extremist right. And the history of such gestures is that they have always been refused with scorn, for good reason.

Nonetheless, such gestures do underscore the reality that Islamist radicalism is a form of right-wing extremism, and its most natural allies in America are not -- as people like David Horowitz and Powerline are fond of suggesting -- on the left, but on the far right. The claims to the contrary are just another instance of the "up is down" kind of Newspeak that has become pervasive in conservative discourse.

But that's not to say that the response to American neo-Nazi "lone wolf" terrorists and white-supremacist terror cells should be the same as that to Al Qaeda. For all their occasional similarities, there are important differences between them, and the response has to reflect that as well.

My sometime correspondent Dr. Jeffrey Bale of the Center for Proliferation Studies outlines some important caveats when assessing the domestic right-wing threat, and they're well worth heeding:
[T]he fact is that the overwhelming majority of acts of domestic right-wing violence have up until now been incidents of opportunistic street violence, as opposed to carefully planned and organized campaigns of terrorism, which are an entirely different thing. There are of course small cells of extremists who have been and still are busily plotting acts of more serious terrorism, but fortunately most of their actions have hitherto been interdicted or failed because the would-be perpetrators were 1) not terribly sophisticated from an operational standpoint, 2) easily infiltrated or "stung" by members of the law enforcement community, or 3) so amateurish as to be unable to maintain secrecy about their plans.

But rat-packing members of "out-groups," setting off the occasional homemade bomb at an abortion clinic, shooting an occasional "enemy" (like Alan Berg or abortion doctors), or robbing banks to fund other violent or criminal activities (like the Phineas Priesthood) -- however horrible these actions are, especially for the actual victims -- are in no way comparable in scale or impact to the systematic, large-scale campaigns of terrorism that have been and continue to be carried out in other parts of the world by well-trained, operationally sophisticated groups of professional terrorists. Anyone who is intimately familiar with the details of numerous operations carried out by left-wing and neo-fascist terrorists in Europe, left-wing and right-wing terrorists in Latin America, or religious terrorists in various parts of the Muslim world -- as I am -- cannot fail to be impressed, by way of contrast, by the extraordinarily amateurish quality of most acts of domestic right-wing violence. This certainly doesn't mean that they should be ignored or that their perpetrators should not be severely punished, only that it is apparent that the kinds of serious terrorist actions carried out by the Order and McVeigh have been -- fortunately -- relatively rare in this country.

Moreover, the fact that small, violence-prone fringe groups are capable of carrying out gruesome acts of violence does not mean that they are politically, sociologically, or culturally significant, in the sense that they represent extensive constituencies or broad-based social forces in the U.S. The fact is that such groups have long been confined to the margins of society and politics in America -- unlike, say, the general Christian right -- and short of a total social breakdown that is likely to be where they remain.

I agree with most of this analysis, though I differ on a couple of significant points:

-- The ongoing ideological traffic between the mainstream right and its extremist counterpoint is increasingly blurring the line behind which the far right has traditionally remained. I am not so complacent about the prospects of their remaining there, especially given the likelihood of future terrorist attacks that will further traumatize the national psyche.

-- I disagree that domestic right-wing violence has been "relatively rare" in this country. Relative, perhaps, to the Middle East, but not to America insofar as it has experience terrorism on its soil.

As I explained before:
It's true that, generally speaking, domestic terrorists are neither as competent nor as likely to pose a major threat as most international terrorists, particularly Al Qaeda. And the belief systems that feed the domestic terrorists have not become pervasive in popular Western culture the way Al Qaeda and Wahhabism generally have insinuated themselves in the Islamic world (though there has been an increasing blurring of the lines between the mainstream and extremist right in recent years).

Nonetheless, given the right actors, the right weapons, and the right circumstances, they remain nearly as capable of inflicting serious harm on large numbers of citizens as their foreign counterparts. This is especially true because they are less likely to arouse suspicion and can more readily blend into the scenery.

Most of all, what they lack in smarts or skill, they make up for in numbers: Since the early 1990s, the vast majority of planned terrorist acts on American soil -- both those that were successfully perpetrated and those apprehended beforehand -- have involved white right-wing extremists. Between 1995 and 2000, over 42 such cases (some, like Eric Rudolph, involving multiple crimes) were identifiable from public records.

Some of these were potentially quite lethal, such as a planned attack on a propane facility near Sacramento that, had it been successful, would have killed several thousand people living in its vicinity. Krar's cyanide bomb could have killed hundreds. Fortunately, none of these plotters have proven to be very competent.

The rate has slowed since 2000, but the cases have continued to occur. And someday, our luck is going to run out. Certainly, if we are counting on their incompetence, the fact that the anthrax killer (whose attacks in fact were quite successful in their purpose) has not yet been caught. Likewise, if Al Qaeda attacks again, that will likely signal a fresh round of piggybacking.

It's vital that we take domestic terrorism seriously not because it represents a threat as immediately lethal as Al Qaeda. It doesn't. It's vital because we need to keep it that way.

The far right's clear willingness to piggyback on all kinds of public violence means that the subsequent aftershocks of a major terrorist attack could prove to be equally devastating to the national well-being. Their small-potatoes aspect belies their ability to wreak tremendous havoc.

We cannot say we are dealing with terrorism seriously until we confront this reality.

[Originally posted Monday at The American Stree.]

No comments: