Monday, June 20, 2016

Radical Islamists and the American Far Right: Cousins of the Terrorist Kind

An investigator examines the scene of James Howell's arrest [Los Angeles Times]

The gay community in Los Angeles, seemingly, got very lucky last weekend. Especially compared to their counterparts in Orlando.

A 21-year-old Indiana man with a car full of guns and bomb-making chemicals was arrested by Santa Monica police Saturday. He told police he was going to the Los Angeles gay-pride parade later that day, but didn’t say what he had in mind.

James Wesley Howell
In the car was an astonishing arsenal: a loaded AR-15 assault rifle rigged to allow 60 shots to be fired without pausing, two other loaded rifles, a stun gun, a hunting knife, loads of ammunition, and a trunkful of chemicals mixed and ready to explode as a car bomb. It soon emerged that the man – James Wesley Howell of Charlestown – had a history of violent confrontations and gun-related criminal charges, and was fleeing charges of child molestation when he left Indiana.

The situation spoke ominously of an imminent domestic-terrorism attack – especially in light of the massacre that had occurred at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando late Saturday. However, since none of his arsenal was used and no violence committed, Howell was only charged with a variety of felonies related to bomb and gun possession. The parade went off without notable incident, though anti-gay protesters were present and visible.

The outcome stood in stark contrast to what occurred that same evening at Pulse, when a 29-year-old New York-born Floridian of Afghani descent named Omar Mateen walked in with a semiautomatic rifle and began blasting patrons at will, leaving 49 people dead and another 54 wounded before Mateen himself was killed by police. Mateen claimed to a 911 dispatcher that he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), though in fact he had had no previous affilitation with these radical Islamists.

The Orlando massacre sparked an Islamophobic backlash, with some radicals calling for the immediate deportation of all Muslims from the United States and arming U.S. citizens in response. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump used the occasion to declare himself “right” for his earlier declarations about Muslims, and doubled down by reiterating his earlier call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. He also suggested that President Obama might be secretly conspiring on behalf of the terrorists.

In the meantime, reporting on the potential terrorist attack on the Los Angeles gay-pride event was subdued, since whatever Howell had been planning was diverted when police pulled him over in a traffic stop and found the arsenal. It was further complicated by the eventual discovery that Howell was himself bisexual, and his friends and family indicated he had no known animus toward gays and lesbians.

In a similar vein, it soon emerged that Mateen had actually frequented Pulse and had advertised on gay hookup forums, raising further doubts about the extent of his supposed Islamic radicalism. FBI director James Comey told reporters that he was “highly confident” that Mateen had been radicalized through the Internet, and was not acting on behalf of international terrorist organizations.

The ongoing questions about the motivations of both Mateen and Howell made murky at best any public understanding of the two incidents – which were seemingly unconnected, especially when it came to the specific motives and backgrounds of the actors involved. One seemed clearly inspired by Islamist anti-western rhetoric, while the other seemed at most fueled by the typical far-right-wing loathing of gays with an added twist of self-loathing.

Yet they were in fact deeply connected by the simple reality that both represented acts of domestic terrorism directed at LGBT targets, and both occurred on the same evening, separated only by a few hours. And coming to terms with these acts – both in a realistic sense and with the hope of taking action that actually prevents them from bubbling up in the first place – requires understanding them as closely related, two aspects of the same vicious and hateful coin: right-wing extremism.

The murders, and the near-miss, this weekend were not, of course, the first time that gay and lesbian establishments have been the targets of terrorist acts. Indeed, this sort of violence is hauntingly familiar to anyone who has tracked the history of hate crimes and other vicious acts that have been the horrifying reality for most members of the LGBT community for the past half-century and longer. Indeed, LGBT people are the minority group most likely to attract hate-crime violence in America, and have been for some time.

Until recent years, the violence has emanated primarily from two sources: hate groups, particularly neo-Nazi and skinhead groups as well as various Klan organizations, all of whom have placed the LGBT community as one of their most loathed targets; and far-right evangelical Christians, particularly those who claim that the Bible demands the death penalty for homosexuality, and the radicals who act on those beliefs.

Here’s a brief history of domestic terrorism directed at LGBT people in the United States:

May 12, 1990: Several members of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations organization from Hayden Lake in northern Idaho are arrested and charged with plotting to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of patrons at Neighbours, a Seattle gay bar. Their plan included a “kill zone” strategy in which the explosives would be placed inside the bar, with other bombs placed outside it; the plotters intended to call the bar, warn that a bomb was about to go off, and then set off the secondary charges as the disco cleared out, maximizing the number of fatalities. A trio of “Aryans” were arrested at their motel with a van stockpiled with pipe-bomb parts, a .12-gauge shotgun, a .38-caliber revolver, a stun gun, knives and a pile of hate literature. A fourth man was arrested in Idaho for the plot. Three of the men were convicted and sent to federal prison.
The ruins of the Otherside Lounge in Atlanta, bombed by Eric Rudolph

February 21, 1997: Still uncaught after having set off a backpack bomb at the venue for the Olympic Games the summer before that killed a spectator and injured 111 others, far-right evangelical terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph sets off a bomb containing nails at the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta. Though the bomb was designed to cause maximum injury to the patrons, only five bar patrons were injured. After he was sentenced to five consecutive life terms for his several bombings, Rudolph issued a statement calling homosexuality an "aberrant lifestyle".

September 22, 2000: A self-described “Christian soldier working for my Lord” named Ronald Gay enters a gay bar in Roanoke, Va., and opens fire on the patrons. One of them, a 43-year-old named Danny Overstreet, was killed, and six others were severely injured. Gay later told his attorneys that he was angry over the change of meaning for his surname to include homosexuality, and he had been told by God to find and kill lesbians and gay men. Gay later testified in court that "he wished he could have killed more fags."

February 2, 2006: An 18-year-old named Jacob D. Robida, who had a fetish about neo-Nazism as well as the rap group Insane Clown Posse (known for its dark and violent lyrics) entered a bar in New Bedford, Mass., and upon confirming that it was a gay bar, began attacking patrons – first, with a hatchet that he swung at a man’s head, injuring him, and then with a handgun that he produced when other patrons tackled him and took away the hatchet; three more were injured in the ensuing gunfire. Robida fled the bar and was confronted three days later in Arkansas by police there, at which point he fatally shot himself.

Eric Rudolph
Prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans readily thought of radicals like Rudolph and his far-right cohort, Timothy McVeigh, as the terrorists they clearly were. After 9/11, however, the picture became increasingly muddled, as public and law-enforcement officials, as well as the media, increasingly focused on the image of terrorism as emanating solely from turbaned, Arabic-speaking radicals inspired by extreme Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism, as it’s popularly known.

It’s also worth recalling that the American far right – particularly the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who are among the most vicious homophobes most often associated with hate crimes and terrorist anti-LGBT violence – openly celebrated those Islamist attacks on Americans back in 2001, just as they recently celebrated the Orlando massacre. (Wrote Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer: “From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all neo-Nazi White supremacists, I want to offer a sincere ‘thank you’ to Omar.")

That is because even though the nominal wellsprings of their ideology may differ widely – i.e., either white-supremacist/neo-Nazi ideology or far-right Christianist ideology, or extreme Islamic fundamentalism – the cores of their respective appeals, as well as the psychological profiles of the people they attract as followers, is remarkably similar in nature as well as outcomes. They have the same enemies, and the same targets, because they think and behave in remarkably similar ways.

As one of Rudolph’s victims recently told a reporter: “I always thought Rudolph was like ISIS,” McMahon said. “He comes from the same core.”

In the end, both a religious and cultural variations of right-wing extremism. And what they share in common is much more substantial than the differences of their nominal religions.

As Joshua Holland recently observed, in an ironic kind of twist, the absolutism associated with the most fanatical expressions of their respective religions, which in turn induces them to denounce “unbelievers” of other faiths, is something they all share: “The details differ, but the defining characteristic of all right-wing religionists is an abiding contempt for religious pluralism. They deny the legitimacy of other faiths. All conservative religious traditions are hostile toward gays and lesbians and those who reject traditional gender roles. Most embrace religious nationalism and reject multiculturalism.”

They also share a fundamentalist approach to their belief systems, insisting on the inerrancy whatever their founding scriptures might be – in the case of Islamists, the Koran; of extremist Christians, the Bible; of far-right “Patriot” militiamen, the Constitution of the United States; of neo-Nazis, Hitler’s Mein Kampf as well as a handful of other works that have scriptural import for them. It’s a reductive kind of thinking that, besides enforcing a lockstep mentality, puts all of the essentially authoritarian followers of these beliefs systems at the mercy of the frequently twisted interpretations of these scriptures by their authoritarian leaders – that is, the people who are deciding on the meanings of the words they slavishly adhere to. They all insist that only their interpretation is the correct one.

As Karen Armstrong explored at length in her book The Battle for God, religious fundamentalism is a logical response to the modern demise of the spiritual life. The collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Renaissance, she argues, forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious, giving rise to a fundamentalism that mimics traditionalism but is in reality an entirely modern phenomenon. Essentially, fundamentalism is natural byproduct of modern life, representing the needs of the people who are left behind by modernity – economically, culturally, socially, and spiritually. This applies equally to other kinds of fundamentalism, such as the bizarre interpretation of American law and the nature of government that arises in the worldview of right-wing American “constitutionalists.” The terrorists who are produced by these belief systems are all deeply alienated from modern society, and their violence is always directed at the goal of returning society to its “traditional” values.

Accordingly, all these fundamentalist belief systems – being “traditionalist” enterprises – share a deep rejection of multiculturalism, the 20th-century worldview that overthrew the longtime system of race-based social and cultural hierarchies known as white supremacy, and replaced it with an understanding that all human cultures connote a level of respect and legitimacy, and the notion of superiority among them is largely a conceit cultivated by those in a dominant position. To fundamentalists and other right-wing True Believers, multiculturalism is an abomination, since the notion of the legitimacy of other religions or belief systems is nonexistent for them. It’s their way or the highway – though only the most nakedly racist among them admit that their hostility to multiculturalism naturally defaults back to a race-based system of white supremacy.

In the end, this means that, for the radicals inclined to act out their beliefs violently, the targets of their hatred and violence often are the same. Right-wing extremists almost universally direct their terrorism at the representatives of modernism and multiculturalism in their own minds: democratic institutions and governments, liberals, LGBT folk, various racial and ethnic minorities (especially Jews).

Indeed, a Muslim extremist living in the U.S. had targeted gays once before: On New Year’s Eve 2013, a radical Islamist and Libyan native named Musab Mohammaed Masmari started an arson fire in the stairway of the very same Seattle gay nightclub, Neighbours, that had been targeted by neo-Nazis back in 1990. The fire was quickly extinguished by an alert patron, but with only one other exit and a large crowd estimated at about 900 people, the potential for catastrophe had been immense. After Masmari told a friend that "homosexuals should be exterminated," and an informer from the Muslim community told the FBI that he might have also been planning terrorist attacks, investigators began circling. Masmari was arrested attempting to depart to Turkey, and was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ prison time on federal arson charges.

Both of these attacks underscored the reality that radical Islam is a kind of right-wing extremism, and has much more in common with American Klansmen and “Patriots” than any of them are willing to acknowledge. Of course, because of their inherently xenophobic natures, their targets at times can also be each other: Violent attacks on Muslims and mosques by American extremists have skyrocketed in the past year, especially as Islamophobia whipped up by those same extremists takes effect, and the outrageously wrongheaded belief that radical Islamists are identical to mainstream Muslims spreads.

This is important to place in the larger context of domestic terrorism: As a study I have recently completed of American domestic terrorism between 2008 and the present (to be published later this summer through the Center for Investigative Reporting) demonstrates, American right-wing extremists committed acts of terrorism in the United States at more than twice the rate of domestic Islamist extremists in that time period, with more than double the casualties. Indeed, until the past year, the vast majority of Islamist domestic-terrorism cases involved people arrested pre-emptively by authorities using informants, often to create fake attacks that form the basis for their subsequent federal prosecution.

However, in the past year, that has shifted in one notable and dramatic respect, with four incidents of domestic terrorism committed by Islamists involving extreme violence – in Garland, Texas, where two Islamists attempted a gun attack on an event in which cartoonists made fun of the prophet Muhammad; in Chattanooga, Tenn., where a radical Islamist named Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military installations, killing five and wounding two before he himself was killed;  in San Bernadino, Calif., where a radicalized husband-and-wife couple shot the attendees at a county-employee holiday gathering, and now in Orlando – in just a little over a year. The last two were particularly horrendous, leaving 63 dead and 72 wounded between them. In the previous seven years, there had only been two such incidents.

These recent events have all underscored not just the importance of coming to terms with domestic terrorism of all kinds, but of recognizing that Islamist and American right-wing extremist terrorism are very closely related, and often target the very same vulnerable people – as well as understanding that, over those past eight years, American right-wing extremist terrorists (nearly all of whom are white) have been even more dramatically increasing the levels of lethal violence in the country.

To understand terrorism, we first have to shed our great national blind spot regarding who commits it – namely, the racial one. Ever since 9/11, media, public officials, and the public in general have become reluctant to identify right-wing extremist terrorist acts as fitting that description. When a 19-year-old named Dylann Roof walked into a historic black Charleston church last summer and killed nine congregants there in cold blood, only a handful of media observers identified him as a terrorist, even though the act was manifestly political and intended to inflict terror on the (black) public, which are the two main components in defining a violent act as terrorism. Yet even FBI director James Comey was reluctant to identify the act as terrorism.

That lack of clarity can be harmful, especially when it comes to the public’s ability to understand terrorism – which is an essential component of any kind of anti-terrorism strategy. Enabling the public to see not only that it is being manipulated by these violent extremists, but how this is happening, is the first step in defusing the very terror these acts are intended to spread.

Even more importantly, however, effectively blunting these terrorists requires deeper thinking into the root causes of the extremism that fuels them. Nearly all extremism is built on the bones of unaddressed real grievances, even if those underlying causes of their alienation are heaped with nonsensical conspiracy theories and crude racism. Getting to the root causes entails making an honest effort to address their real grievances without pandering to the ugliness.

In rural America, for instance – where so much of the modern “Patriot”/militia/constitutionalist extremism breeds today, as we saw this past January at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon – there are genuine grievances involving government management of public lands that metastasize and transform like into conspiracism and bizarre beliefs about the Constitution. Many white nationalists are white working-class people who have been left behind by the modern American technological economy. All of these reflect real issues that need to be addressed in concrete ways if we want to be serious about dealing with domestic terrorism and the deep cultural rot it represents.

Modernization can be a great thing for large masses of people, but it always leaves people behind, and when the numbers begin to mount, so does the inevitable violence and the cultural toxicity from which it springs – reflected not just in the current political divide, but also in the tide of mental illness to which so much of this terrorism is often attached (and dismissed, wrongly). In the end, we need to ameliorate the caustic effects of modernization upon those left behind, not just in the interests of protecting ourselves, but really, of simply doing the right thing.

Maybe then we can stop counting on just being lucky in evading much of the potential terrorist violence that has been lurking, largely ignored, in the American landscape, as we apparently did in Santa Monica. Because as Omar Mateem proved in Orlando, sometimes that luck runs out.