The Brown Scare of '09


Greg Sargent's reaction to the murder at the Holocaust Museum yesterday—"it's time to revisit criticism of 'right-wing extremists' report"—wasn't atypical. You could hear the same insta-reaction around the Web, as confirmation bias did its work and two or three crimes by far-right figures were transformed into something larger. Here's Andrew Sullivan: "That DHS report doesn't look so iffy any more, does it?" Markos Moulitsas: "Attempt by Cons to justify their critique of prescient DHS report are an extra special dose of stupid." Benjamin Sarlin at The Daily Beast writes that "a much-maligned Department of Homeland Security memo on right-wing extremism is looking more accurate by the day." Doug J. at Balloon Juice says, "How many acts of right-wing terrorism have to occur before DHS is allowed to start keeping track of it?"

So the Department of Homeland Security, a bloated and dysfunctional agency that shouldn't exist in the first place, should spend its time tracking the possibility that a criminal kook with no co-conspirators will decide to shoot a doctor or a security guard? From preventing another 9/11 to preventing unorganized shootings: Talk about mission creep. Yes, these murders are terrorism, but they're the sort of terrorism that can be contained by the average small-town police force. If you try to blow them up into a grand pattern that threatens ordinary Americans, you're no different from the C-level conservative pundits who treat every politically motivated crime by a Muslim as evidence of a broad Islamic threat to ordinary Americans' well-being. (The reliably inane Debbie Schlussel even blames Islam for the Holocaust Museum shooting, despite the fact that the killer is a neo-Nazi, on the grounds that "it is because of Muslims–who are the biggest contributor to the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism to Holocaust-eve levels–that neo-Nazis feel comfortable–far more comfortable!–manifesting their views about Jews.")

Why did the DHS report come under such fire? It wasn't because far-right cranks are incapable of committing crimes. It's because the paper blew the threat of right-wing terror out of proportion, just as the Clinton administration did in the '90s; because it treated "extremism" itself as a potential threat, while offering a definition of extremist so broad it seemed it include anyone who opposed abortion or immigration or excessive federal power; and because it fretted about the danger of "the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities." (Note that neither the killing in Kansas last month nor the shooting in Washington yesterday was committed by an Iraq or Afghanistan vet.) The effect isn't to make right-wing terror attacks less likely. It's to make it easier to smear nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the right, just as the most substantial effect of a red scare was to make it easier to smear nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left. The fact that communist spies really existed didn't justify Joseph McCarthy's antics, and the fact that armed extremists really exist doesn't justify the Department of Homeland Security's report.