Thursday, April 1, 2010

Americans can be terrorists too

Americans can be terrorists too

Most national news agencies in the United States have by now reported that federal law-enforcement agencies raided the homes and other facilities of a militia organization, the Hutaree Militia, over the weekend. The raids, in which the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force cooperated, were staged in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade stated that agents took action the group because the militia members were planning a significant attack for an undetermined date in April. The plan reportedly involved murdering a law enforcement officer and then ambushing the funeral procession with explosive devices in order to kill more police officers. Nine persons, all members of the Hutaree Militia, were charged on Monday with seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosive materials, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence. Other allegations about the Hutaree included reports that several Muslim leaders, including Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations of Michigan, that the Hutaree had made repeated threats of violence against them.

What little is known of the hitherto virtually unknown Hutaree group is not exactly flattering. News reports published in the wake of the raids, many of them citing the group’s own website, portray the Hutaree organization a small, secretive, heavily-armed and militantly fundamentalist Christian militia, whose primary focus lies in preparing to fight alongside a returned Jesus Christ during the supposedly imminent events which they believe to be foretold in the Book of Revelation. By way of a mission statement, the group’s website declaims:

“Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment. The only thing on earth to save the testimony and those who follow it, are the members of the testimony, til [sic] the return of Christ in the clouds. We, the Hutaree, are prepared to defend all those who belong to Christ and save those who aren’t. We will still spread the word, and fight to keep it, up to the time of the great coming.”

Several spokesmen of the South Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM) quickly denounced the Hutaree, stating that although members of the Hutaree group had on occasion trained with the SMVM, the two groups otherwise had nothing to do with each other. Michael Lackomar, a SMVM spokesman, referred to the Hutaree as a “cult,” “who believe that this is the end of the world as prophesized by the Bible and it is their duty to take up arms to fight alongside Jesus against the impending forces of Satan."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines ‘domestic terrorism’ as

“the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

As of this writing, the national media has steadfastly avoided calling the Hutaree Militia members arrested last weekend terrorists, instead employing a wide array of euphemisms ranging from ‘alleged militia’ to ‘Christian warriors,’ and Attorney McQuade has attempted to downplay the role of religion in the group’s intentions, the group’s own professed doctrine, objectives, and website notwithstanding.

This series of raids will, of course, do nothing to calm the increasingly frenzied and potentially militant right wing movements currently agitating in the United States, a population that includes innumerable organizations similar to the SMVM and the Hutaree. Other, similar organizations may well take the federal government’s raids as persecution of the right-thinking, as proof that the militia organizations’ beliefs about the feds’ dictatorial ambitions were right all along, much in the same way that the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian organization in Waco, Texas stirred up a tide of right-wing resentment that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

There is nothing new about political violence in the United States. This country has a long history of violence born of political agendas and prejudices, including the Indian Wars, pitched battles fought during labor unrest (e.g. the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado), sectarian religious violence (e.g. the KKK’s attacks on Catholics and Jews), radical leftist violence during the 1960s, outright domestic terrorism such as the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and of course the American Civil War, which remains the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history. In more recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization who track militias, white supremacists, and other racist organizations, identified some 75 instances of domestic terrorism between the years of 1995 and 2009.

The Indian Wars aside, many of these incidents can be characterized as clashes between conservative and liberal groups, whether it is the Weathermen’s bombing campaign of the late 1960s and early 1970s, racial violence by the KKK in order to intimidate African-Americans and preserve white political hegemony, or reactionary use by corporations of private armies of Pinkerton “detectives” to intimidate striking workers during labor troubles of the late 19th Century.

The early 1990s was the most recent previous heyday of right-wing domestic trouble. Although some militia groups such as the Posse Comitatus had existed as far back as the early 1980s, most (including the SMVM) were formed in the early 1990s in response to what many people saw as a series of unlawful actions by the federal government, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Brady Bill and other restrictions on private firearms, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the Ruby Ridge standoff, and the siege of the Freemen Militia compound in Jordan Montana. A further inspiration were the 1992 riots in Los Angeles and several other cities, which raised the specters of social collapse, race war, and similar issues.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the high-water mark of the antigovernment domestic terrorism movement during the 1990s, perhaps because the appalling carnage shocked many in the militia groups and other organizations into backing away from outright violence and talk of overthrow, and retreating into talk radio and the then-burgeoning Internet.

The movement was virtually quiescent during the Bush administration’s tenure in office, either because they perceived their great nemesis, the federal government, to be under the control of people more aligned to their own views than previously, and partly because of the patriotic pressure-cooker environment that enveloped the country for several years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. Fears of the Zionist Occupied Government (to use a term embraced by some militant fringe groups) suddenly took a back seat to fears of foreign terrorism and subversion.

One of the common themes linking together groups as diverse as the anti-communist and paleoconservative John Birch Society, the SMVM, the antiabortion Army of God, and neo-Nazi groups such as the Aryan Nations or the World Church of the Creator, is the belief that the federal government is either not to be trusted, if not outright illegitimate. The objective of many such groups is thus to defend themselves against excessive government intrusion, or in some extreme cases such as the Hutaree, to overthrow the government outright.

Conspiracy theories involving the federal government, the United Nations or secret government agencies became so pervasive during the 1990s that idioms such as “the tin-foil hat crowd” or references to black helicopters entered popular culture. The black helicopter meme, in fact, was the creation of Mark “Mark from Michigan” Koernke, a militia activist and talk radio personality who later served seven years in prison for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

The phenomenon of the conspiracy theory as a motivator in politics was recognized several decades ago in Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” an exploration of the circumstances of the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s victory over the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican presidential nomination, and arguably the most succinct summing-up of modern US politics yet written. Hofstadter’s introduction might as well refer to the events of the present day:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

As Hofstadter recounts, ‘paranoia’ and the fear of political, social, or economic conspiracies have been a major theme of politics in the history of the United States, extending from a distrust of the Jesuits and esoteric quasi-Masonic groups in the early days of the Republic, to Freemasons in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to the military-industrial complex during the Cold War, to New World Order bĂȘtes noirs like the Bilderberg Group and Trilateral Commission and so on, even into the 21st century with allegations of corporate price-gouging on necessities such as gasoline.

Parenthetically, none of these ‘conspiracy theory’ ideas are new ideas in and of themselves—the allegations of FEMA-run concentration camps, for example, date back to the 1980s and the Reagan Administration’s “Operation Pegasus,” the black-ops continuity-of-government program headed by National Security Advisor Oliver North (himself now a Fox News television presenter), which would theoretically have placed the United States under martial law administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Operation Pegasus went through numerous drills, culminating in an operation codenamed Rex 84 (Readiness Exercise, 1984) that, as revealed during Lt. Col. North’s testimony on the Iran Contra affair, tested the preparedness of the federal government to detain large numbers of US citizens in the event of disaster or domestic unrest. Rex 84, in turn, had its origins in conceptual plans prepared by retired General Louis Giuffrida (who was later Reagan’s director of FEMA) for sequestering most of the African-American population (“21 million Negroes”) in the event of an uprising by the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, or other militant groups.

Much of the acute antigovernment sentiment of the radical fringe during the 1990s stemmed from their resentment of the Clinton administration’s pre-1994 policies, before the Democratic establishment was eviscerated by the Republican victory in the 1994 elections. The main worry stemmed from the fear that the “liberal,” activist, and overreaching government so thoroughly vilified by conservative pundits, talk radio personalities, and politicians would (possibly in conjunction with foreign powers) use federal power to strip people of their Constitutional rights and institute a totalitarian state. An alternative hypothesis is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Japan as an economic power, certain social elements characterized by militant patriotism and other ideologies needed a new “other” to dislike.

The dichotomy between anti-government militancy when out of power and “for reasons of national security” when in power is a recurring theme for the right wing over the last three decades, but it is difficult to make generalizations about the militant right-wing fringe’s attitudes towards the government during the Bush administration’s second term. On the one hand, white male, conservative, and evangelical Christians were still nominally in charge and were saying all the right things, but the administration as a whole had ‘betrayed’ the cause on several fronts, notably failure to restrict legal and illegal immigration, one of the main hot-button issues of the day.

The more liberal elements of society at the time fretted over the increasingly intense and overtly Christian character of the political culture in Washington and the ‘red states,’ especially when it came to issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and the separation of church and state -- cases in point, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, the White House’s Faith-Based Initiatives, covert or overt religious litmus tests for public office, the teaching of evolution, and abstinence-only sex education in schools.

On the other hand, however, as the Bush administration staggered through its second term and as the election wars began, many in the right-wing fringe gave up on the Republican establishment, accusing them of having let the side down, so to speak. Much of this populist fury was subsequently given substance in the “Tea Party” organizations that arose in 2009.

The revival of the militant right wing after the election of President Obama was perhaps to be expected, given the tensions attendant on the election of a liberal black Democrat after eight years of notionally conservative government, and eight years before that of a Democratic president politically outgunned by a vigorous conservative block in Congress. President Obama receives about thirty death threats per day, which is a record number according to the Secret Service. The number of right-wing militia groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law center, has increased 240% in just two years, adding over 300 new groups in one year alone.

During the 2008 presidential campaign alone, various right-wing organs, some mainstream and some not, accused then-Senator Obama of being variously a crypto-Muslim, a socialist, and an outright Communist. Allegations that he is not by birth a US citizen persist on talk radio and in other conservative and fringe circles. He was further tarred with the brush of all the usual accusations—being a tool of the Bilderberg Group, United Nations, New World Order, or one of a hundred other ‘anti-American’ bĂȘtes noirs, with alleged goals including wanting to nationalize the health care industry, ban private firearms, etc. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

The rupturing of the Republican establishment’s conservative hegemony in 2006, followed by its outright collapse in 2008, signaled that the conservative movement’s following had shrunk. Eight years of the Bush administration, with two stagnated and expensive wars, economic collapse, and revelations of rampant corruption and cronyism, had soured many moderated, independents, and fellow-travelers on the movement, and what was left in the cold light of January 2009 was a party and a movement that had shrunk like a dried plum, losing much of the malleable outer part but retaining the hard inner core.

This should not be taken to mean that all conservatives or Republicans are members of the radical fringe or espouse anything like the same ideas. If the Republican party and the conservative movement (and their respective national leadership cadres) are far more closely tied to and influenced by the hardliners and the radical fringe of the right wing in 2010 than they were ten years previously, however it is because most of the other people jumped ship after 2006, leaving the hardliners and fringe as a higher proportion of what remained.

The crowning irony of the right wing in the United States is, when you get right down to it, how ideologically diverse that end of the political spectrum is. It is a testament to the extent to which politics can make strange bedfellows that antigovernment libertarians, who resent every intrusion of government into their concept of a private sphere, with white supremacist or white separatist groups, or would-be theocrats who wish to see the government enforce Biblical laws and codes of morality for all citizens.

Theoretically, there are two common threads of conservatism in US society—fiscal conservatism, which is concerned largely with the role of government as an administrative and financial structure, and social conservatism, which has a notionally broader spectrum that includes views on race, morality, religion, social order, and the like. The two are neither distinct nor inherently opposed, however, and tend to overlap a great deal.

One of the most significant sea changes in modern-day politics in the United States is the increased influence of evangelical Christianity, if not as an outright ideology then as an organizing principle. Indeed, numerous polls by Rasmussen, Zogby, and others have shown that evangelical Christians, as a block, were instrumental in getting George W. Bush elected president and keeping him there, and played a similar role in the Republican domination of Congress that began during the Clinton administration.

The so-called “religious right” of the political spectrum in US society, a broad-brush term for social and religious conservatives as a subset of conservatism as a whole, and comprised, primarily evangelical Protestant Christians. The religious right is decidedly outspoken and ambitious, and is one of the primary motivators of the radical right. Between end-times groups like the Hutaree, other religiously motivated groups such as the antiabortion and would-be theocratic Creator’s Rights Party run by Neal Horsley and the Army of God, and the occasional fundamentalist outburst about or within government itself (Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, for example, or the role of the so-called “Family” to which a number of Republican legislators belong) there is a tremendous social and political pressure from the right for government and society to conform to their wishes.

The point is, you cannot easily separate religion as an ideology, meme, or motivator from a society of the religious, since religion is part of what makes a society what it is. This is arguably why the principle of a separation between church and state was important to the founding fathers of the US, drawing on the experiences of the Huguenots of France and the various non-Church of England sects in the United Kingdom—not only to protect the state from the influence of religion, but to protect religion from the influence of the state. This is also why Attorney McQuade’s attempt to downplay the role of religion in the Hutaree plans are, to say the least, quite disingenuous.

Some of the more significant religious concepts emphasized by the militant fringe of the right wing include:

  • Antinomianism, or the belief that a supposed divine law supersedes the laws of a civil government, with the corollary in some circles that obedience to civil law is not necessary for one’s salvation. An inversion of this concept, also common in some circles, holds that Christians are obligated to resist civil law in instances where law and their interpretation of the Bible conflict, for example in cases in which religiously-motivated antiabortion protesters murdered physicians. Enforcement of civil laws that contravene supposed divine law—including protecting the civil rights granted to others—is often interpreted as oppression of Christians.

  • Dominionism, also sometimes called Theonomy, or the belief that the sole appropriate law of the land is the divine law (as distinct from theocracy, government by a deity or by clergy), applied equally to Christians and to anyone else who lives there. This concept is sometimes entangled with religious interpretations of ‘American exceptionalism,’ such as the latter-day Puritan belief that America was founded as a divinely-sanctioned ‘city on a hill’ or the oft-uttered, baseless assertion that “America is a Christian nation.” One corollary to this theory, embraced by some groups such as the Army of God and the Hutaree, is that any government not founded explicitly on Christian principles is inherently illegitimate. Please note that this theory dispenses with the last 500 years of Euro-American political thought and social change, even Hobbes’ Leviathan, and kicks us back essentially to the Divine Right of Kings. The concept of dominionism, as taught by the Assemblies of God church to which Sarah Palin belongs, explicitly encourages Christians to enter politics and use their influence to ‘Christianize’ government and society.

  • Various interpretations of Christian eschatology, which is that aspect of theology concerned with the end of the world. The belief in an imminent end of the world, complete with the rise of the Antichrist, the return of Jesus, tribulations, desolations, beasts, angels, the battle of Armageddon, and the like. 35% of Americans surveyed in a 2002 Time/CNN poll asserted that the Bible is the word of god and should be taken literally, and 59% believed that the events of the Book of Revelation would happen or were happening. More troublingly, 24% of Republicans responding to a recent Harris poll apparently believe that President Obama may be the Antichrist. It is no surprise that the Left Behind series of Christian fiction books dramatizing the end of the world has been so popular—at one point, the series was selling 1.5 million copies per week.

To the extent that there is an element of society in the US that intends to use violence to further religiously-inspired ambitions, an “American Taliban” does exist, but only in a loose and metaphorical sense, rather than as an organized entity.

The SPLC has recently expressed concern over the great increase in right-wing militant activity. According to the SPLC’s most recent report, Rage On The Right:

The radical right caught fire last year, as broad-based populist anger at political, demographic and economic changes in America ignited an explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation.

Hate groups stayed at record levels — almost 1,000 — despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America. Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80%, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called "Patriot" groups — militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose “one-world government” on liberty-loving Americans — came roaring back after years out of the limelight.

In terms of numbers of militia organizations, the SPLC found:

But last year, as noted in the SPLC’s August report, "The Second Wave: Return of the Militias," a dramatic resurgence in the Patriot movement and its paramilitary wing, the militias, began. Now, the latest SPLC count finds that an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) — a 244% jump.

The SPLC credits the rapid and dramatic increase in such activity to the influence of nationally-recognized politicians and pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), Lou Dobbs, and particularly the perpetually petulant and porcine Glenn Beck, all of whom blend religious and political vitriol in their rhetoric.

Some of the specifics cited in the SPLC’s report included:

· Glenn Beck’s insistent claims that that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running concentration camps in the continental united states (even after he was humiliated by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman on the subject).

· Former CNN host Lou Dobbs’ claims of supposed Mexican plots to take over the southwestern U.S.

· Rep. Michele Bachmann’s statements about secret political reeducation camps run by a supposed liberal establishment.

· Sarah Palin’s allegations of government "death panels" during the health care debate.

To these examples, I would add Palin’s most recent “Don’t Retreat—Reload” slogan, rolled out after the passage of the Obama administration’s health insurance reform legislation in late March 2010, and which was accompanied by a map of the U.S. targeting (politically, and possibly physically) vulnerable Democratic members of Congress with rifle-style crosshairs. I would also add Sean Hannity’s wholesale endorsement of the Tea Party on April 1, 2010 (sadly, this was not an April Fool’s Day prank), which received vigorous applause:

“When you think about the vast majorities that they have in Congress and they had to bribe, backroom deals, corruption, that’s all because the tea party movement, the people — all these Tim McVeigh wannabes here.”

It is entirely and reasonably foreseeable that the inflammatory rhetoric belched from these mouthpieces will start a fire somewhere. In the week following passage of the 2010 health insurance reform legislation, a number of Democratic legislators received death threats and offices were vandalized. In the worst such incident documented as of this writing, the gas service at the residence of the brother of Rep. Tom Perreillo (D-VA) was sabotaged in a manner that could have caused a lethal explosion after the property’s address was posted as Perreillo’s own residence on a right-wing website with the suggestion that Tea Party members “pay a visit.” Fortunately, nobody was injured, and the FBI is investigating.

Alarmingly, however, if matters follow the two most relevant parallels (the run-up to the Oklahoma City bombing and the superheated rhetoric about abortion), it is unfortunately only a matter of time before the violence becomes real and people start being murdered over religion and politics.

What responsibility will the bigmouths bear for the actions of their followers?

A further concern is how the other groups in the fringe will interpret the Hutaree raid; if the conventional wisdom evolves into a perception of innocents persecuted by authority, it could exacerbate problems in much the same way that the Branch Davidian disaster or Ruby Ridge inspired the Oklahoma City bombing.

We are as a nation, however, reluctant to call any sort of domestic political or religious violence ‘terrorism,’ perhaps because on some level we resent the connotations of religious fanaticism, indiscriminate violence, and other hallmarks of political and religious terrorism in other countries. Cultural or religious preconceptions also color the picture; we associate terrorism with militant Islam, with screaming mobs of grubby men in the streets of Baghdad or Gaza or Tehran, with an Orientalist view of the place, people, and phenomenon as the product of an alien, primitive, and unthinking fanaticism. We do not like to think that we may have it within ourselves to act like that. Small wonder, then, that we choose to call it anything else.

Admitting to a problem with domestic terrorism is, for a nation, akin to a person admitting that he or she has tertiary syphilis. It’s a terrible embarrassment and casts all kind of shadows over one’s moral character and fitness to exist.

The truth is, however, that Americans can be terrorists too. The sooner we admit that, and call a spade a spade, the sooner we can have a levelheaded discussion of what to do about it.

Thus we return to the FBI’s definition of the issue.

“Domestic terrorism the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

The real threat to public order and the republic in 2010 is not from black helicopters, secret police, extraordinary renditions, torture, politicized justice, bought-and-paid-for legislators, or corporate-sector leg-breakers such as Blackwater. Neither is the problem the prospect of a wholesale rebellion. The United States is unlikely ever to face the prospect of a legion of plucky Browncoat-analogues rolling down Main Street towards an encounter with the Third Marine Division, or the President frog-marched from the White House by a Tea Party mob like Louis XIV was dragged from Versailles.

The real threat is from bigmouths with big audiences and clever people with short tempers. Four people with a rented truck full of fuel oil and fertilizer blew a federal office building off the map in 1995, killing 168 people.

One of the more influential experiences of my teenage years was watching several years’ worth of news coverage of the Bosnian Civil War on television. Sarajevo was a nice city by the standards of Cold War era Eastern Europe (it hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics) became the center of the bloody and protracted civil war that gave birth to the terms “ethic cleansing” and “Balkanized.”

I particularly remember once, when I was driving down Maple Street in Springfield during a driver’s ed lesson, I looked out over the downtown area and thought to myself that one of the better things the United States had achieved was that no bombs had ever fallen from that sky. As decrepit as downtown Springfield was (and remains), it was nice to know nobody was bombarding it with heavy artillery, and that no snipers haunted the upper floors of apartment buildings.

Sarajevo ultimately withstood the longest siege in modern military history (generally reckoned as April 1992 through February 1996). It was strange to watch tanks firing at skyscrapers; it looked more like the sort of thing you would expect to see in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie than something out of the generally complacent and prosperous 1990s. It would be nice if the US could continue to avoid that sort of thing.

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