This is a paper I wrote for one of my classes last semester. I thought it would be appropriate to post now. I did not realize how afraid I was for President Obama until after the inauguration went off successfully and I discovered how relieved I actually was. (Paper written in late November 2008.)
Far right terror groups, or hate groups, which seemed not so long ago to be confined to the fringes of American society, have taken advantage of recent societal and economic developments to make their voices heard by the mainstream once again. Since they seem likely to play a role in events over the next several years, it is worth examining some of the types of right wing extremist groups, their motivations and concerns, and ways in which government and law enforcement can keep them from criminal activity.
Right wing extremist groups have diverse goals and means. They seem to fall into three main categories: patriot groups (militias), non-revolutionary racist groups, and revolutionary racist groups. While it is important not to overgeneralize about the far right, there is a great deal of crossover and similarity between the prongs of the movement, and they may cooperate with each other to accomplish a given goal. The groups tend to share a hatred or distrust of the federal government and fear the increasing diversity of the United States (Lyman & Potter, 2007; Michael, 2003).
The militia movement's identity comes from the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." They believe that the government is conspiring to take their weapons and that any environmental protection law is an infringement on their rights (Levitas, 2002). They tend to be located in rural areas and have a populist appeal. Posse Comitatus groups, for example, claim that no one should have to recognize any legal authority beyond the county level (Michael, 2003).
The seeds of the militia movement were planted during the farm crisis and environmental protection regulation of the 1980s, but the movement began to truly take hold in the 1990s. Groups were catalyzed into action and growth by gun control laws, such as the 1994 passage of the Brady Bill, which regulated firearms sales. They also garnered sympathy and recruits because of two botched federal raids, the first being the 1992 standoff between federal agents and white supremacist Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Weaver's unarmed wife and teenage son were killed, and the deaths made them martyrs in the eyes of the militia movement. The second was the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of seventy-eight people (Lyman & Potter, 2007; Michael, 2003).
The militia movement reached its zenith in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh and Nichols had ties to the militia movement, particularly the Michigan Militia, but the Michigan Militia steadfastly denies that the two were ever members of the group (Levitas, 2002; Michael, 2003). Militia activity died down after the Oklahoma City bombing, but made a resurgence in 1999 due to fears over a potential Y2K disaster. When no Y2K apocalypse occurred, the militia movement dwindled and fell out of the public eye (Hamm, 2004; Levitas, 2002).
The non-revolutionary racist right seeks to educate the public about racial issues, sway whites to their views (a process colloqiually known as "awakening"), and gather like-minded individuals together. They attempt to maintain White control of society through legal and political means, although they are prepared for at least the abstract possibility of violent confrontations in the future. These are, for the most part, law-abiding organizations, although their ideas and values provide impetus for race-related crime. The non-revolutionary right includes groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, American Renaissance, and some neo-Confederate secessionist groups (Michael, 2003). Researcher George Michael (2003) also includes the Ku Klux Klan as a non-revolutionary group, in spite of their criminal and terrorist activity. "For much of its history it has been the defender of a racial status quo and has not sought to really overthrow or change the government" (p. 63). "The Klan persists more as an idea. And some of those inspired by this idea have harrassed and terrorized people by way of assault, murder, vandalism, and cross-burnings" (p.62).
Far more immediately dangerous is the revolutionary racist right. These are groups which believe a "race war" is both inevitable and necessary. Some favor the creation of a minority-free White homeland in the Pacific Northwest or the South. Others wish to deport all minorities from the United States. Many of the groups believe that a secret cabal of Jews controls the federal government, which they refer to as "ZOG," for Zionist Occupation Government (Lyman & Potter, 2007; Michael, 2003).
A large number of revolutionary groups use religion either as a unifying system or as a justification for their inherent racism. Christian Identity groups, for example, believe that only Aryans are the descendants of Adam and Eve. Minorities, whom the Identity groups often refer to as "mud people," are actually descendants of Eve and the Serpent, or Satan. Other racist groups reject Christianity altogether because of its Jewish origin. Some of these are followers of Odinism, a neo-pagan movement based on Norse mythology, while others follow the Creativity Movement, also known as the World Church of the Creator. This is not a religion per se, in that it does not specify a particular deity to worship. Instead, Creativity asserts that the laws of nature prove the superiority of Whites and prohibit racial mixing (Dobratz, 2001).
Because revolutionary racist groups see themselves as soldiers in the race war, they can be particularly prone to terrorist acts. A group known as The Order went on a violent spree of crime during the 1980s. They hoped that their example would start the White revolution which would overthrow the ZOG. Instead, the group members were arrested or killed during confrontations with law enforcement (Lyman & Potter, 2007; Michael, 2003). Other groups are nearly indistinguishable from militia organizations. The best known of these is The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. The group stockpiles weapons and survival supplies and thoroughly drills members in survivalist and paramilitary tactics (Michael, 2003).
After the excitement surrounding the high-profile catalyzing events of the 1990s, right wing extremists and racialist groups had fallen into disarray. The Ku Klux Klan and other factions attempted to use distrust of Arabs and Hispanics based on the 9/11 attacks and immigration issues, but throughout the better part of the decade, they were unable to rally (Jonsson, 2008; Levitas, 2002).
Unfortunately, the faltering economy and the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States seem to be contributing to a rise in right wing extremist activity. The Southern Poverty Law Center and law enforcement agencies report that since the general election on November 4, 2008, more than 200 hate-related incidents, including cross burnings, hanging effigies, and betting pools hoping for the assassination of President-elect Obama, have occurred in the United States. Owners of racist and extremist websites have bragged that since the election, their sites and message boards have received enough increased traffic to crash their web servers (Jonsson, 2008; Witt, 2008). David Holthouse (2008) reported on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog that many voices on the far right are calling for the rebirth of the militia movement. Gun sales and applications for firearms licenses have increased dramatically since the election (Holthouse, 2008; Johnson, 2008). Even before the election, two men with ties to a Kentucky Klan chapter were arrested and charged in a conspiracy to assassinate Obama (Witt, 2008).
The uncertainty and anger caused by the combination of the economic crisis, demographic trends indicating that whites will no longer comprise a majority of the US population after one more generation, and the election of the nation's first non-white president provide conditions which are conducive to the growth of right wing extremist groups. "I think we're in a worrying situation right now, a perfect storm of conditions coming together that could easily favor the continued growth of these groups," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (Witt, 2008).
There are a number of difficulties related to control of far right extremist groups. First and foremost, it is often a challenge to determine to a court's satisfaction whether or not the perpetrator of a hate crime acted alone or on the orders of a larger group. Since the failure of The Order to spark revolution, many right wing terror groups have loosened their organizational structures. They work under a system called leaderless resistance. In short, the members of the organizations know the principles of the organizations and the types of terrorism and criminal activity which would best further the group's goals, and they are to act on those goals as the opportunity strikes. The arrest or death of one member of the group does little to deter the group as a whole (Levitas, 2002; Michael, 2003).
First Amendment rights are also a concern when dealing with hate groups. "Anytime you start seeing [extremist propaganda] floating around, you have to be concerned," explained Lt. Gary Thornberry of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. "As far as it being an alarmist situation, I don't see that yet. From a law enforcement point of view, you have to be careful, because it's not illegal to have an ideology" (Jonsson, 2008, para. 6). The FBI ran into difficulty avoiding First Amendment violations when they were struggling with the Ku Klux Klan during the 1960s. Their program, called COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, was a massive campaign to infiltrate Klan groups, discredit Klan leadership, and turn Klansmen against each other. The FBI program was successful in neutralizing the KKK as an effective force, but many of their methods were called into question. In particular, they were criticized for setting up some of the situations which led to Klan arrests and for their surveillance and infiltration techniques (Drabble, 2004; Michael, 2003).
In order to be successful in combatting right wing terror groups, law enforcement must work closely with watchdog organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Not only do these organizations do a thorough job of tracking and categorizing hate-related activity, they can also be powerful forces in directly attacking the extremist groups by filing civil suits which, if successful, could financially bankrupt the public sides of the extremist groups (Michael, 2003).
Law enforcement should also give a high priority to monitoring internet communication. The far right groups have had a presence on the internet since its beginning, and they have become adept at using electronic communication to publicize their ideas and recruit new membership (Gerstenfeld, Grant, & Chiang, 2003). While the extremist groups may not directly post plans for attacks online, law enforcement would be able to monitor trends and increases in traffic to right wing websites which would alert them to the possibility of impending terror acts.
Law enforcement agencies also need to make full use of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. These reforms, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, greatly increase the government's power for surveillance and detection of terrorist activity, and this certainly includes domestic terrorists as well as the Middle Eastern terrorists who inspired the law (Levitas, 2002).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, law enforcement officials need to make a greater effort to understand the motivations of the far right groups. One of the reasons Waco was such a disaster for the government was that they made no attempt to understand the Branch Davidians' religious background; they treated the group as political in nature and were thus unprepared for the group's willingness to die (Michael, 2003). Understanding as many aspects of a group's purpose as possible makes it far more likely that any standoff will end through negotiations rather than violence. One way to do this may be to infiltrate the groups not just to learn potential plans, but also to learn and understand the groups' philosophies.
Given the great diversity of ideas and the bountiful network of communication available within the United States, it may not be possible to completely squelch the ideas of right wing terror groups. However, vigilant law enforcement and a well-educated population should help to minimize or even negate the damage such hate groups may wish to cause.
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