Is the Threat of Homegrown Extremism Real?

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, is a former cop who now often consults with law enforcement. He studies all sorts of movements -- neo-Nazis, the violent fringe of the environmentalist movement, jihadis. "I could care less politically where someone is at," he says. "What I look at is, is this entity an entity that promotes extrajudicial violence? Is it an entity that promotes falsehoods and bigotry? Is it an entity that regards itself as removed and hostile towards the institutions and processes of democracy?"

Levin believes that radical Islamists pose the greatest terrorist threat to the United States right now, but he's also increasingly worried about another breed of reactionary extremist. The climate on the American far right, he says, is starting to remind him of the one that prevailed before the Oklahoma City bombings. There's a similar sense of paranoia, political dispossession, and ferocious hatred toward the federal government. "We know from the past, that increased chatter and more vitriol in the exchanges is relevant to look at," he says. "It doesn't necessarily determine outcomes, but it is something that should be on the radar screens."

Last week, many conservatives -- as well as some liberals -- were up in arms over a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security warning of an increased threat of radical right-wing violence. "Rightwing extremists," it says, "may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment." Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has already had to apologize for the politically incorrect (though actually correct) statement that some traumatized and disgruntled military veterans could make particularly dangerous recruits to violent extremist groups. But as people argued about whether the Department of Homeland Security was threatening civil liberties or insulting the troops, another pressing question receded: Was it correct?

The debate is already turning into a mirror image of the one that prevailed during the Bush years. Conservatives are howling about the demonization of dissent. Writes Michelle Malkin in her April 15 syndicated column, "What and who exactly are President Obama's homeland security officials afraid of these days? If you are a member of an active conservative group that opposes abortion, favors strict immigration enforcement, lobbies to protect Second Amendment rights, protests big government, advocates federalism, or represents veterans who believe in any of the above, the answer is: You." Meanwhile, some liberals -- including myself -- have been pleased to see the government taking a clear danger seriously. "This Homeland Security report reinforces our view that the current political and economic climate in the United States is creating the right conditions for a rise in extremist activity," Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a press release.

That's not to say that everyone on the left is sanguine about the Homeland Security Department's approach. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements, worries that the report casts too wide a net. (Full disclosure -- I'm a consultant on one of Political Research Associate's projects.) "They don't draw a distinction between what they call domestic right-wing terrorist groups, extremist groups, and groups with radical-right ideology," he says. "I'm very concerned that when they are talking about the role of the government in stopping extremism and radicalization, they are stepping way over the line in policing political thought. So I'm torn. I recognize the potential for violence on the right, but in a few years, [government surveillance] will be turned around and used against Muslims and environmentalists and left-wing dissidents."

I was somewhat chastened by his words, since I'd initially dismissed concerns about the report. Berlet is right that liberals should guard against being cavalier about the civil liberties of their ideological foes. Ultimately, though, he sees the report as a problematic footnote to the bigger story about the growing potential for violence in the United States. Like many people who study the right professionally, he says that even if the report is sloppy, the threat it describes is quite real.

"Right-wing populist rhetoric that demonizes a particular target group creates a milieu in which violence is more likely," Berlet says. "Glen Beck is now spouting what the militia movement spouted in the '90s. This kind of hand-wringing hyperbole about impending tyranny and the New World Order and the roundup of guns, the roundup of people for detention camps, is so provocative that I have no doubt that some people will act out in violence." Indeed, at least one already has; earlier this month in Pittsburgh, Richard Poplawski, who apparently feared that the Obama administration was going to ban guns, killed three policemen.

The radical right is not a single entity -- though there may be overlap among various congeries of hardcore racists, anti-Semites, militia types, violent anti-abortion protesters and immigrant haters, there are also important distinctions. Yet across the far right, the temperature seems to be rising.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that the number of hate groups operating in the United States rose to 926 in 2008 from 888 the year before. "As in recent years, hate groups were animated by the national immigration debate. But two new forces also drove them in 2008: the worsening recession, and Barack Obama's successful campaign to become the nation's first black president. Officials reported that Obama had received more threats than any other presidential candidate in memory, and several white supremacists were arrested for saying they would assassinate him or allegedly plotting to do so," said an SPLC report. Jewish watchdog groups see rising anti-Semitism as angry, bewildered people blame international Jewish bankers for their woes. And groups concerned with abortion rights are fearful that terrorism against clinics and doctors will ratchet up in the face of the anti-abortion movement's current political powerlessness.

"We know from experience that political losses can sometimes incite anti-abortion extremists to retaliate against abortion providers," says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. Anti-abortion violence spiked during the Clinton administration, a time of right-wing mayhem more generally. "The first murder was in ’93, and in ’94 we had four murders," Saporta says. "Then again in ’98 we had two murders." Fearing a reprise of the 1990s, NAF has advised its members to increase their security.

The Department of Homeland Security, then, is right to be alert. According to Levin, although the report is weak on specifics, more information might well be behind it. "To the extent that there is an ongoing investigation, or something that could reveal a source or a method, or some piece of data that could harm national security or tip off a subject, it has to be excised," he says. "Often times you get reports that are kind of stripped down."

Of course, this same kind of rationale was often offered by the Bush administration whenever it put out one of its vague terrorist warnings. Evaluating it boils down, in part, to the question of trust. I saw the Bush administration as perfectly capable of manipulating the country's fear for political convenience. The notion that the Obama White House, terrified by tea parties, would issue a bogus alert meant to discredit its none-too-creditable enemies strikes me as rather less believable. It's not surprising that Obama-hating conservatives don't view it that way. Then again, their proliferating conspiracy theories about the federal government are part of what make the current moment so dangerous.