Last weekend's massacre at the Oak Creek Sikh temple has sparked a lot of speculation about the connections between the killer's politics and the killer's crime. There are sensible ways to think about this subject, and there are not-so-sensible ways.
A sensible way: You note that the man who targeted an institution filled with immigrants also played in a white-power band, had racially tinged tattoos, and posed for a photo in a white-pride T-shirt in front of a Nazi flag. And so, even if you're open to the idea that some other motive might present itself, you infer that his worldview likely had something to do with his murders. You are also open to the possibility that he shared his plans with others in his neo-Nazi milieu.
A not-so-sensible way: You note that the shooter hailed from the right. And so you write a story for Salon that starts like this:
When Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano released a report in April 2009 identifying right-wing extremists as a threat to the country, conservatives howled. The general sentiment was expressed by Michelle Malkin, who declared the report a "piece of crap…propaganda…an Obama hit job." Jonah Goldberg complained that the DHS report failed to stick "to the practice of describing these groups with more specificity and without the catchall, ideologically loaded descriptors." Well, now that we have learned the murderer of six people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple was a well-known white supremacist, conservatives might want to consider reexamining their claims that terrorists don't exist on the right side of the political spectrum.
I've had plenty of disagreements with both Malkin and Goldberg over the years, but I doubt that either of them would ever claim that terrorists don't exist on the right side of the political spectrum. They certainly said no such thing in the passages that the Salon writer, Jordan Michael Smith, just quoted. Here's another line from the same Jonah Goldberg post: "I have no doubt that there are plenty of groups that are right-wing that deserve scrutiny from law enforcement." It's kind of hard to misunderstand that, but apparently it can be done.
It seems like any time a person from the far right commits an act of terror, someone tries to rehabilitate that DHS report. Sometimes someone brings it up even if the perp really isn't from the far right. So here, one more time, is what was wrong with the DHS document:
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."
The rest of Smith's Salon piece reviews some of the worries FBI officials have had about far-right violence over the last decade. If you're interested in the subject, you should read the bureau documents that he links to. I wouldn't dismiss what they have to say, though I wouldn't uncritically accept them either—this, after all, is the agency that warned us last year that the Juggalos are conspiratorial threat.
I'll wrap up with a historical note. COINTELPRO was an infamous and unconstitutional FBI effort to disrupt and neutralize movements that the agency deemed subversive. In 1964, bureau director J. Edgar Hoover expanded its reach with a program called COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups. This proved to be a watershed.
Previous COINTELPRO efforts had been designed with national security in mind: Even when the target had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, the bureau still had to convince itself that there was a link to Soviet subversion before it acted. Bad as COINTELPRO was, it at least had this brake on what it could do. But even Hoover found it difficult to argue that the Communists controlled the Klan. Nonetheless, because the bureau was aiming its fire at the radical right, powerful liberals were happy to sign off on the program. And with that precedent established, the FBI had an easier time targeting the antiwar movement and the Black Panthers. Thanks to the White Hate Groups program, the Brandeis sociologist David Cunningham writes in his excellent study There's Something Happening Here, many more groups could "be thought of as 'subversive' and therefore suitable targets for counterintelligence programs. No longer did a subversive group have to be controlled by or intimately tied to a hostile foreign power."
Anyone on the left who's tempted to cheer on the DHS report should remember their predecessors who cheered on COINTELPRO. When today's officials survey the country for alleged terror threats, they show no signs of limiting their paranoid vigilance to the right.