Both liberals and conservatives spend time arguing that the other side contains people who are nutty, highlighting extreme statements in an attempt to convince people that there's something fundamentally troubling about their opponents. There are many differences between the extreme right and the extreme left, perhaps most importantly that the extreme right has a much closer relationship with powerful Republicans than the extreme left has with powerful Democrats. When you find a crazy thing a liberal said, chances are it's an obscure professor somewhere, or a blogger with twelve readers, or a random person at a protest. The crazy people on the right, in contrast, are often influential media figures or even members of Congress, people with real influence and power.
There's another critical difference that doesn't get as much attention: the extreme left is, generally speaking, harmless. That's their nature. They're more likely to meditate and form committees than hurt anyone. It's been almost half a century since there were any leftists plotting bombings, and other than the occasional eco-vandal keying an SUV, the left isn't going to be creating much in the way of crime and mayhem.
Extreme conservatives, on the other hand, are much more likely to be armed and dangerous. And we have plenty of examples of right-wing terrorism in our recent history, from the Oklahoma City bombing, to the Atlanta Olympic bombing, to the neo-Nazi who murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, to the murders this April in Kansas at a Jewish community center and retirement home, and dozens more. So you would think that law enforcement authorities would be particularly concerned about violent extremism on the right, while not wasting precious resources monitoring, infiltrating, and harassing leftists who are doing things like protesting U.S. foreign policy or opposing income inequality.
Oh, but you'd be wrong. The latest, from the New York Times, describes how law enforcement officials around the country went on high alert when the Occupy protests began in 2011, passing information between agencies with an urgency suggesting that at least some people thought that people gathering to oppose Wall Street were about to try to overthrow the U.S. government. And we remember how many of those protests ended, with police moving in with force.
The activities the Times article describes are relatively low-level compared to how many agencies approached left activism in the years after September 11, essentially treating any gathering of liberals like it was an al Qaeda cell days away from launching an attack. Anti-war groups were infiltrated with undercover officers posing as protesters, the most innocuous groups imaginable were spied on (you can rest easy knowing the threat from Quaker peace activists was closely monitored by anti-terrorism officials), and wherever a bunch of liberals got together to raise their voices, mass arrests often followed.
If you can't recall any Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010 being broken up by baton-wielding, pepper-spraying cops in riot gear, that's because it didn't happen. Just like the anti-war protesters of the Bush years, the Tea Partiers were unhappy with the government, and saying so loudly. But for some reason, law enforcement didn't view them as a threat.
Or even more recently, recall how gingerly law enforcement officials treated Cliven Bundy and his allies. Here was a guy stealing public resources, and his supporters were literally pointing guns at government officials, and the response of the government was, "Let's everybody stay calm here." Eventually the authorities just backed off. I guess it's lucky for the Bundy folks that they never tried forming a drum circle or passing out veggie burritos, because then the hammer would have really come down on them.
This isn't anything new, of course; the government has a long history of treating liberal groups like a dire threat to the republic. But when we see yet another story like this one, it's a reminder that the people and agencies charged with public safety have bizarre notions of where terrorism might come from. And that makes all of us less safe.