With the recent killings of government prosecutors and others in Colorado and Texas there is speculation that a member of a White Supremacist prison gang is responsible, and that more racist right-wing violence is forthcoming.
As someone who has studied right-wing movements for over 30 years, I take this possibility seriously, and I fear there is a potential for more violence. Government law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to prevent such violence, yet we need to ensure that they do not use this situation to further erode our civil liberties. It is a complicated situation with few easy answers.
The moment in which we live is similar to the political period of the mid-1990s where the anger of militant right-wing groups at the federal government led to the terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. I was one of a group of researchers who warned the federal government of the potential for violence prior to the bombing (a warning that was ignored), and then found myself subpoenaed as an expert by the defense in the trial of one of the perpetrators. As I said...it's complicated.
Prison gangs are nothing new, but the rapid and very troubling increase in the percentage of inmates from Black and other people of color communities has created a dynamic where White Supremacist and neo-Nazi gangs flourish. White Supremacist prison gangs are a major problem inside and outside the incarcerated population of the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Counting just adults, 1 in 100 of our neighbors are behind bars. People of color make up 70 percent of the US prison population. Violence against people of color is mounting. Human rights activist Ruby Sales tells me there is an unacknowledged White Supremacist war on Black Americans. So let's be clear that White Supremacy is not just a problem created by racist social movements.
The huge increase in the number of White Supremacist and right-wing Patriot/Militia groups in the past few years in the United States has been documented by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center. This volatile development is spawned in part by widespread antagonism toward a Black President, and the crass and opportunistic fearmongering of demagogues. This in great measure is influenced by right-wing news outlets such as Fox News; some Republican political operatives; right-wing movement political activists; and a menagerie of self-promoting conspiracist cranks across the political spectrum who warn of a coming totalitarian regime or other spectacular elitist plots. Some of these demagogues, including Alex Jones and Webster Tarpley, have a substantial audience on the political left.
This fearmongering rhetoric creates a self-aware movement and momentum that can lead to acts to incidents of scripted violence by individuals who see themselves as heroes for their act of terrorism against the government -- a government which they see as on the verge of crushing resistance to its impending tyrannical plans. They cast themselves in the role of superhero striking a blow against the forces of darkness. This is how subversion panics can create counter-subversive movements. This has happened throughout U.S. history, with the late 18th century Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids in 1919-1920, and the anticommunist Witch Hunts of the 1950s Red Scare as examples. Counter-subversive movements can generate acts of apocalyptic violence.
Progressives nonetheless need to be wary about giving the government carte blanche in rounding up White Supremacists and neo-Nazis, as loathsome as they really are. Since the terror attacks on 9/11/01, the erosion of civil liberties has been extensive. Under Obama, federal law enforcement agencies have continued and even amped up their use of informers and the use of entrapment against movement activists on the left and right as well as in the Muslim community.
While many in the Patriot/Militia movements harbor racist beliefs, this is a different movement from the organized White Supremacist movement, although there is much interaction and cross-recruitment at their edges. The federal government has repeatedly failed to make this distinction.
For example, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a neo-Nazi, while his accomplice Terry Nichols was in the Patriot/Militia milieu. They worked together selling survivalist and other gear at gun shows but did not share the same political worldview. I base this analysis on being subpoenaed and then given access by the defense team to the materials produced in discovery in the Nichols trial. Nichols, the Patriot Movement activist, apparently was under the impression that the bombing of the federal building would take place at night. McVeigh, the neo-Nazi, set off the explosion to kill as many people as possible.
During his trial, Nichols, through his attorney, let it be known to government officials that he was willing to name other unindicted participants in the bombing plot if the State of Oklahoma took the death penalty off the table. In his trial, Nichols was indicted on the murders of the federal personnel, and still faced charges in Oklahoma for the numerous other deaths. This offer was rebuffed. It is clear to me that government officials were more interested in covering up their own misfeasance and attracting political support for vengeance rather than an actual quest for justice.
A few years ago a government analytical document on right-wing anti-government militant movements and recruitment by White Supremacists inside U.S. military forces was leaked to the press. A huge backlash by right-wing demagogues blocked a sensible public debate on the contents of the report. Much of the report was an accurate assessment of the danger posed by the dynamic. The report, however, failed to draw several important distinctions. Loose language lumped together various sectors of the Political Right, and the author seemed to imply that radical ideas cause acts of violence and the government has a role in stopping both.
If we are to honor the First Amendment, the government has no business stopping radical ideas of dissenters wherever they land on the political spectrum. Ideas are protected free speech; acts of violence and other law-breaking are the concern of government. We must not allow a broad witch hunt against right-wing movement activists -- even White Supremacists and neo-Nazis -- as we call for more government action against racist crimes.
Chip Berlet, a vice-president of the Defending Dissent Foundation, has covered civil rights and liberties since the late 1960s. He co-wrote the entry on Neo-Nazism in the new Encyclopedia Judaica, and has a chapter on building Left/Right coalitions against government repression in a forthcoming book from AK Press. His website is www.researchforprogress.org.