Thursday, June 11, 2009

To the extreme

Some argue that the United States encourages extremes. Born in revolution, nearly destroyed in a bloody civil war, the country has long been associated with violence and the passions that lead to it. That lets us off too easily.

Recent incidents of domestic terrorism—the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, today’s attack at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum—aren’t directly related, however, they’re the logical outcome of a society that tolerates violent dissent and ever-escalating rhetoric in political debates.

The radical anti-abortion movement has tried to distance itself from the assassination of Dr. Tiller, even though some of their leaders say he “had it coming”. They call the murderer a “lone nut job”, which is how, no doubt, the white supremacist murderer today also will be portrayed.

“Lone wolf”: Does that sound familiar?

“…lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Information from law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations indicates lone wolves and small terrorist cells have shown intent—and, in some cases, the capability—to commit violent acts.”

The Department of Homeland Security made that assessment as part of its look at rightwing terrorism in the US (PDF available here). That’s the same report that supposedly mainstream conservatives attacked so fiercely that the department had to back away from it. Their attacks were so fierce, in fact, that one wonders why, exactly, they believed the report applied to them: To what extent did they see themselves as violent extremists?

That the report was correct isn’t surprising. Nor is the vitriol the right heaped on it, nor their hypocrisy in ignoring an earlier report warning of left wing extremists’ attacks. What’s surprising is the extent to which the mainstream media—and ordinary people—ignore the underlying factors that lead to this sort of violence.

First and foremost: The rhetoric that encourages and inspires these lone wolves. Faux News performer Bill O’Reilly mentioned Dr. Tiller more than two-dozen times, including referring to him as a “baby killer”. Another performer on the network made a list of 100 people who were “threats” to America. The murderer who attacked the church in Tennessee was inspired by that list, and by Faux News performers generally.

The murderer at the museum today used the Internet to promote his racist and white supremacist beliefs, and participated on a leading wingnut website that spends a lot of time promoting truly bizarre conspiracy theories. That site encourages and promotes extremist views as part of its daily fare.

We have no trouble seeing how islamist extremists can be encouraged toward violence (like the American Muslim in Arkansas—another lone wolf) by the hectoring and demands of a largely hidden few. Why can we not see how the loud, easily available and even acceptable extreme rhetoric on American television or even more so on the internet might not lead right wing lone wolves to carry out acts of violence?

We have to be honest about the effect the right wing media has on these lone wolves. It’s baldly dishonest to claim they don’t encourage and embolden these violent extremists. If the media didn’t influence people’s behaviour, there would be no advertising. Of course Faux News, along with wingnut media, encourages lone wolves to act. Should right wing media be censored? It’s not that simple and—without a specific incitement—no censorship is even possible in the US, so the question’s moot.

Hate speech will happen and will be distributed no matter what we do or say, but we ought to call it what it is and we must take it seriously, especially when, as in the cases of Dr. Tiller’s murderer and the killer today, they have a history of violent extremism. In such cases their speech indicates a propensity toward violent extremism. We also must never pretend that such extremist views are legitimate political opinion. And, of course, we need to make sure that deranged people get the mental health help they need.

Everyone—both ends of the political spectrum and their media—must remember that words matter, that they can have huge unforeseen consequences. And really, is it necessary to use extremist language to “prove” one’s point?

America isn’t doomed to endure extremist violence because of the nation’s history. What recent events have shown is that the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. We can change this, and we must.


TheEXfundi said...

I agree we must change it. In the mean time I am looking for a new home!

Jason in DC said...

I think we need to get over the idea of the lone wolf as you put it. The internet means these guys are connected to each other. They just aren't meeting face to face.

Which might make the interactions even more dangerous because there's no reason at all to hide how they feel.

I have a feeling this isn't the last we'll see of this.

Tim Corrimal said...

Wow. What a great way to sum up the situation. Looks like that DHS report that the Republicans got so up in arms about was correct. I think it's time they eat some crow, but that won't happen.

Arthur Schenck said...

TheEXfundi: Well, there are plenty of options, but I couldn't possibly comment on options (New Zealand), could I?

Jason: I agree, but "lone wolf" is a phrase used by Homeland Security and academics who study these extremists. What they mean by that is simply people who act alone, even though they're clearly connected to each other.

I'm also quite sure that this isn't the end.

Tim: Thanks. Yeah, the first thing I thought to myself was that DHS was right after all—the Republican screaming was, we can now see, utter B.S. And Republicans won't eat crow—they can never admit they were wrong, no matter how obvious it is.