Who killed Stephen Tyrone Johns, the guard gunned down at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., last week? If you only read the news pages, the culprit should be clear: the 88-year-old Nazi James W. von Brunn. But in the opinion section, the answer looks cloudier. For some pundits, blame rests not just with the killer but with a host of angry voices on the radio, the television, and the Internet.
Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News and World Report indicts the "promoters of hate" for the shooting, adding, "If yesterday's Holocaust Museum slaying of security guard and national hero Stephen Tyrone Johns is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don't know what is." In The New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman warns that "right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment." His colleague Frank Rich has written a piece that begins with the museum shooting but rapidly becomes an argument that "homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs." After the museum murder, Rich writes, Glenn Beck "rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a 'lone gunman nutjob.' Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that 'the pot in America is boiling,' as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on."
Less than a month before the museum murder, an assassin shot the Kansas abortionist George Tiller, prompting a similar set of complaints. For the record, I don't think Tiller's critics in the media and the pro-life movement should be blamed for that crime. Speakers are not morally responsible for all the ways their words can be received. But in that case, at least, there was a coherent connection between the rhetoric and the killer's target. Say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Michael Savage, but I don't remember any of them railing against the Holocaust museum. If Beck, to borrow Rich's mixed metaphor, is cheering on a kettle, it isn't the kettle that produced von Brunn.
We've heard a lot of warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president. We've heard much less about the paranoia of the centrists; indeed, the very idea that the sober center could be paranoid sounds bizarre. But when mainstream columnists treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a "pattern" of "rising right-wing violence," their thesis bears more than a little resemblance to the conspiracy theories of the fringe figures they oppose. In both cases, the stories being told reflect the anxieties of the people discerning the patterns much more than any order actually emerging in the outside world.
This isn't the first time the establishment has been overrun with paranoia about the paranoiacs.
The Paranoid Style in Center-Left Politics
The classic account of American conspiratology is Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It's a flawed, uneven article, but it includes several perceptive passages. The most astute section might be this:
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.
Hofstadter doesn't acknowledge it, but the argument could be applied to a lot of his audience as well. His article begins with a reference to "extreme right-wingers," a lede that reflected the times: As he was writing, America was undergoing a wave of alarm about the radical right. This had been building throughout the Kennedy years and had intensified after the president's assassination, which many people either blamed directly on the far right or attributed to an atmosphere of fear and division that they traced to the right's rhetoric. By the time Hofstadter's article appeared, the projection he described was in full effect not merely on the fringes but in the political center. Just as anti-Communists had mimicked the Communists, anti-anti-Communists were emulating the red-hunters.
In 1961, for example, Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers and the liberal attorney Joseph Rauh wrote a 24-page memo urging the attorney general to deploy the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission in "the struggle against the radical right." By this they meant not just the Birchers and the Christian Crusade but Goldwater and the libertarian Volker Fund. In Before the Storm, his history of the Goldwater movement, the independent historian Rick Perlstein describes Group Research Incorporated, a UAW-funded operation, as "the mirror image of the political intelligence businesses that monitored left-wingers in the 1950s, identifying fellow-travelling organizations by counting the number of members and officers shared with purported Communist Party fronts. Group Research did the same thing, substituting the John Birch Society for the reds."
Since there's so much interest today in tracing the effects of extreme rhetoric, it's worth noting that the phrases that sounded so dangerous on the lips of the Christian crusaders weren't so different from comments that had been common among Cold War liberals. Robert DePugh, founder of the Minutemen—the anti-Communist activists of the '60s, not the anti-immigration activists of today—claimed to have been inspired by John F. Kennedy's own words: "We need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life." In Before the Storm, Perlstein notes that JFK "spoke often in these absolutist, apocalyptic terms."
Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, a specialist in both the history of moral panics and the history of the American right, has described this period as the second of three "brown scares." The first came in the late 1930s and early '40s, when the Roosevelt administration and some of its allies in the press conflated genuine domestic fascists with critics who were far from Nazis. The third came in the 1990s, after Timothy McVeigh's mass murder in Oklahoma City, when the Clinton administration pushed through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the media ran a series of fear-mongering stories about the alleged militia menace in the heartland. The latter period—the late '90s—may have the most in common with the anxieties emerging in 2009.
The Great Militia Panic
The militias embraced a battery of baroque legal theories and bizarre conspiracy folklore, but they were never a substantial threat to ordinary Americans' well-being. Neither McVeigh nor his accomplice, Terry Nichols, turned out to be a member of a militia. After the Oklahoma City attack, a Michigan Militia spokesman said his group's closest contact with the bombers had come when James Nichols, Terry's brother, showed up to speak during the "open forum" portion of a meeting. By that account, Nichols attempted to distribute some literature, urged everyone to cut up their drivers' licenses, and was eventually asked to leave. *
After Oklahoma City, some individuals in the militia milieu were nabbed for planning crimes. (The Michigan Militia Corps itself tipped off the cops when it learned a member was building pipe bombs.) Some militiamen were also arrested for plots that turned out to have originated with the government's own infiltrators. What did not exist was the pattern touted in much of the media, in which the militias were described as though they were terrorist conspiracies themselves. And while the press sometimes described the militias as though they were a simple continuation of the racist right of the '80s, the leaders of the older movement weren't so quick to recognize the militias as their children. "They are not for the preservation of the white race," Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler complained to New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl in The Right to Bear Arms, Karl's balanced assessment of the militia phenomenon. "They're actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others." It's true that some racists and anti-Semites popped up in militia circles. Some blacks, Hispanics, and Jews showed up as well. The driving force behind the movement was fear of the government, not fear of foreign races and religions.
The militia-hunters nonetheless went through incredible contortions to link the anti-government populists to violent bigots. In A Force Upon the Plain, a not-so-balanced assessment of the militia phenomenon, Kenneth Stern essentially argued that when militia members weren't racist, they were racist dupes. If their theorists posited an international cabal led by Freemasons, the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, Stern suggested, they were really proposing a cabal led by Jews; their theories were "rooted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, because the worldviews were structurally similar. "The militia movement today believes in the conspiracy theory of the Protocols," Stern wrote, "even if some call it something else and never mention Jews." The argument resembles Woody Allen's syllogism: "Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates." (Stern's history was as bad as his logic. The Protocols did not emerge until the late 19th century and was not widely popularized until 1903. Anti-Masonic theories were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first anti-Illuminati hysteria broke out in 1797.)
An even odder idea held that the militias were a gateway drug. Stern attributes this argument to Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network, who compared the patriot movement to a funnel. People enter it for many reasons—to protest taxes, regulations, gun control, you name it. As they're sucked in, they begin to embrace conspiracy theories and revolutionary rhetoric. At the far end of the funnel are the hardcore bigots. Not all the militiamen are at the funnel's eye, Stern conceded, but that was where they were heading.
The argument would only work if white supremacy were the reductio ad absurdum of opposing globalization and federal power, an assumption that makes no sense. You'd actually expect the most partisan patriots to embrace a radical decentralism, not racism. Perhaps expecting this objection, Stern argued that decentralist rhetoric is racist itself—that the idea of states' rights "has always been used to shield local governments from criticism over discriminatory practices" (emphasis added). And the dangers of decentralization didn't stop there. "Most Americans," Stern wrote, "define their political associations from top to bottom: One is an American, a Texan, from Dallas. There has always been a countervailing tendency...to reshape alliances so that small comes first, and large last, if at all." And what's so bad about that? "When a political movement rejects the idea of common American values and says, 'Let me do it my own way,' it usually means it wants to do things that are objectionable, and yearns to do them undisturbed and unnoticed."
So anyone critical of centralized power, from the property rights movement to the bioregionalists, was potentially a part of the problem. That's a mighty big funnel.
The Big Funnel of 2009
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the threat of "rightwing extremism." Depending on whose interpretation you prefer, the paper either defined "extremism" extremely broadly or failed to define it at all. "Rightwing extremism in the United States," it said, "can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration."
The charitable reading of this passage is that it's a sloppily phrased attempt to list the various ideas that drive different right-wing extremists, not a declaration that anyone opposed to abortion or prone to "rejecting federal authority" is a threat. But even under that interpretation, the report is inexcusably vague. It focuses on extremism itself, not on violence, and there's no reason to believe its definition of "extremist" is limited to people with violent inclinations. (The department's report on left-wing extremism cites such nonviolent groups as Crimethinc and the Ruckus Society.) As Michael German, a policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, noted after the document surfaced,
Focusing on ideas rather than crime, the latest bulletin from DHS cites an increase in "rhetoric," yet doesn’t even mention reports that there was a dirty bomb found in an alleged white supremacist’s house in Maine last December. Learning what to look for in that situation might actually be useful to a cop. Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.
Unfortunately, the Homeland Security report wasn't an anomaly. Government-run "fusion centers" in several states have produced similar papers aimed at identifying "potential trends or patterns of terrorist or criminal operations"; the subjects range from anarchists to Odin-worshippers to "Illicit Use of Digital Music Players." The most infamous dossier, produced by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, was devoted to—yes—the militia movement, plus a host of other dissidents that it roped in with the militiamen. The paper, which was distributed to police throughout the state, declared that "It is not uncommon for militia members to display Constitution Party, Campaign for Liberty, or Libertarian material. These members are usually supporters of former Presidential Candidate: Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr." Not content with that piece of political profiling, the document warned that the Gadsden Flag, a popular historical banner bearing a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan DON'T TREAD ON ME, "is the most common symbol displayed by militia members and organizations." Watch out, highway patrolsman: That history buff with the flag on his bumper just might be a terrorist!
In the wake of the Tiller and Johns murders, such sloppiness and worse is seeping into the mainstream media. For some pundits, the very basics of critical thought seem to have gone out the window, as they treat a handful of distinct crimes as sign of a rising menace without so much as bothering to check if there's been more small-scale rightist terror this year than in previous years.
That isn't the only way commentators have failed to do even the most cursory review of comparable events in the past. Rich's column reaches its nadir when he shares these thoughts from Camille Paglia:
[T]he invective in some quarters has unmistakably amped up. The writer Camille Paglia, a political independent and confessed talk-radio fan, detected a shift toward paranoia in the air waves by mid-May. When "the tone darkens toward a rhetoric of purgation and annihilation," she observed in Salon, "there is reason for alarm." She cited a "joke" repeated by a Rush Limbaugh fill-in host, a talk-radio jock from Dallas of all places, about how "any U.S. soldier" who found himself with only two bullets in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden would use both shots to assassinate Pelosi and then strangle Reid and bin Laden.
Rich and Paglia are supposed to be savvy to popular culture, so it's surprising that they'd consider that gag a harbinger of anything but the talk jock's poor taste. I've heard variations of the joke in every administration since Bush I (when the punchline featured the phrase "shoot Quayle twice"), and I have it on good authority that it dates back long before then.
So does the spirit it represents. American politics have been filled for centuries with angry rhetoric, crude jokes, dubious conspiracy theories, and, sadly, ideologically driven violence. You can't eradicate the rhetoric, the jokes, or the theories. And even if you could, the violence wouldn't end.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason.
* The text originally described both Terry and James Nichols as McVeigh's accomplices. In fact, only Terry Nichols was charged with the crime.