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This theory would only make sense if white supremacy were the logical conclusion of opposing globalism and federal power. But you'd expect the most radical members of such a movement to embrace a radical decentralism, not racism. Perhaps anticipating this objection, Stern argued that decentralist rhetoric is itself racist—that the idea of states' rights "has always been used to shield local governments from criticism over discriminatory practices." (Yes, he wrote "always." When state officials object to federal raids on medical marijuana clubs, Stern presumably believes they have a veiled racist agenda.) And the dangers of decentralization didn't stop there. Stern warned: "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 governors protesting unfunded mandates to eco-conscious locavores, is potentially a part of the problem. That's a mighty big funnel.
The Big Funnel of 2009
When you blur the boundaries of a scapegoated group, there's a useful side benefit: You can discredit mainstream as well as radical political opponents. There was a turning point in the mid-'90s standoff between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a moment when the White House was able to start setting the terms of the debate and the GOP went on the defensive. In most accounts, the shift came when the Republicans' willingness to "shut down" the federal government backfired during the budget battle at the end of 1995. But the April bombing in Oklahoma City and the militia panic that followed was at least as important in shifting the grounds of the argument. They allowed Clinton's supporters to play up the "extreme" anti-government rhetoric coming from Gingrich's supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the "extremism" of McVeigh and the militias.
A similar dynamic is at work in 2009. When pundits weave a small number of unrelated incidents into a "pattern" of crime, then link it to the rhetoric of Obama's opponents, it becomes easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal critics on the right, just as a red scare makes it easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left.
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 far too broadly or failed to define it at all. "Rightwing extremism in the United States," the department 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 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, wrote after the document surfaced, the bulletin focuses "on ideas rather than crime." One practical effect, German noted, is that the paper "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 Odinists to "Illicit Use of Digital Music Players." The most infamous dossier, produced by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, was devoted to the remnants of—what else?—the militia movement, plus a host of other dissidents it roped in with the militiamen. The fact sheet, 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 to engage in political profiling, the document warned that the Gadsden flag, that familiar historical banner bearing the slogan "Don't Tread on Me" below a coiled rattlesnake, "is the most common symbol displayed by militia members and organizations." Watch out, highway patrolman: That history buff with the flag on his bumper just might be a terrorist!
When panicky centrists aren't willing to draw an unbroken line from peaceful conservatives to the violent fringe, they posit a somewhat subtler link. The killers, they acknowledge, aren't taking their marching orders directly from Fox News and AM radio. But by giving serious attention to theories associated with the fringe right—that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing concentration camps, that Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen—Glenn Beck and other broadcasters are validating the grievances of potential killers, giving them the impression that they aren't alone. This validation is buttressed by the sweeping, sometimes violent rhetoric about "liberals" that you hear from partisan celebrities, such as Ann Coulter's joke that McVeigh should have blown up the New York Times building instead. In The Eliminationists and on his blog, David Neiwert tries to establish a chain linking "eliminationist" behavior in American history (lynchings of blacks and Asians, the slaughter of American Indians), eliminationist rhetoric on the mainstream right (the Coulter wisecrack), and von Brunn–style efforts to eliminate people directly.
The theory is interesting, but it has two enormous problems. The first is that it ignores the autonomy of people on the fringe. Not just the radicals who commit the crimes, but the radicals who don't commit crimes. There's a complex ecology at work here, one demonstrated most clearly in those cases when militiamen alerted authorities to terrorist plots in their midst. Words have influence, but they influence different people in different ways; you can't reduce media effects to simple push-pull reactions. Accusing Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't so different from accusing pornography of validating rape, Ozzy Osbourne of validating teen suicide, or Marilyn Manson of validating school massacres.
The second problem is the implicit version of history. Neiwert has uncritically embraced the idea that the militia movement began in 1992, so it's easy for him to imagine a progression from the old lynch mobs to the right-wing '80s underground to the '90s militias to Republicans who tolerate militia-style arguments. But if Churchill is right about the origins of the militia movement, the original eliminationists might have a different, more dangerous set of descendants.
The 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement includes footage of camouflage-clad cops gathered outside David Koresh's compound before the final assault on the Branch Davidians. One officer declares himself "honed to kill." A buddy of his compares him to Rambo. A Klansman turns up in the middle of the standoff to offer his services in stopping Koresh. "Give him an ultimatum, give him a deadline," he suggests.
Who exactly were the eliminationists here? The reporters and officials who stigmatized a sect and launched an attack that ended with most of the Davidians dead? Or the people who were moved to defend the rights and the memory of a multi-racial community associated with unusual beliefs and sexual practices?