A few weeks ago it emerged that the Tsarnaev brothers' reading and listening material before the Boston Marathon bombings included not just the jihadist jumble that we already knew about, but the Alex Jones show, some far-right literature, and some conspiracist stuff that isn't easily categorized as left-wing or right-wing. The people uncovering this information don't deny that the Tsarnaevs' grievances were centered around radical Islam, but as Bruce Hoffman of the Center for Security Studies told The Wall Street Journal, the brothers "were jihadi autodidacts and no one person shaped all their thinking. Their readings are going to be a lot more eclectic than someone sitting with like-minded terrorists at a camp somewhere."
Since then, I've seen people on the left processing this information in two ways, one sensible and one cracked.
On the sensible side there is Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald. Seitz-Wald enjoys mocking right-wing conspiracy theorists, but he also understands that the Tsarnaevs' worldview is a bit more complicated than the average Alex Jones fan's (and that Jones himself isn't purely a product of the right). So he doesn't dismiss the brothers' Islamic orientation, which was clearly at the core of their grievances, and he doesn't try to reduce their other influences to a simple left/right narrative. Instead he suggests that the story "illustrates how 21st century anti-government conspiracism melts down typical ideological barriers in a postmodern stew of various radicalisms, united by a common deep distrust of the government." My only significant disagreement with Seitz-Wald's post comes when he treats this as a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon, to the point of contrasting Tsarnaev with Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City bomber, Seitz-Wald writes, was "a product of the American conspiracism of his day, which leaned more purely to the right." But the '90s actually saw a surge of the left/right crossover conspiracism that Seitz-Wald describes here—that's the era that prompted Michael Kelly to coin the term "fusion paranoia." Even McVeigh was reading Gore Vidal along with The Turner Diaries.
On the not-so-sensible side we have MSNBC's Alex Wagner, who introduced a segment this week by announcing that the brothers "may not have been the radical jihadists they were initially believed to be." She then cut to a clip of Alex Jones doing his I-have-anger-management-issues act, briefly cited the Wall Street Journal and Salon articles, and introduced a guest, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here's how the interview opens:
WAGNER: We've had you on before to discuss the rise of hate speech, but I feel like this piece, the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been influenced and motivated by some of the stuff that is happening domestically here in terms of far-right conservative fringe movements, is fairly shocking. Tell us if you will a little bit about the rise of hate groups in the recent past.
POTOK: Well, we've seen an enormous rise, not only in hate groups, but in so-called "patriot" groups or militias, really dating back to when Barack Obama first appeared on the political scene in the United States in the fall of 2008. Starting right then we really saw these groups start to expand very rapidly, I think largely in response to the idea that the United States is becoming less white, is demographically not going to be dominated by whites as it has been throughout most of its history.
Already the segment has gone off the rails. I'll give Potok a pass for saying that Obama "first appeared on the political scene" in 2008—we all have slips of the tongue sometimes, and I know what he meant to say—but the rest of this is inexcusable. His organization distinguishes "hate groups" motivated primarily by bigotry from "patriot groups" motivated primarily by fear of the government and/or of New World Order–style conspiracies, and so he makes that distinction at the beginning of his answer; but then he proposes a motive for the patriots that's more at the core of what the haters would believe. (Yes, there's all sorts of overlap and mutual influence out there, but he's supposed to be explaining the growth of a category he explicitly distinguishes from hate groups.) He also says "or militias," as though "militia" and "patriot group" were interchangeable categories, but the SPLC actually treats the militias as a subset of the patriots—and while their last report showed an increase in the number of patriot groups, it showed the number of militias declining. (It showed a slight decline in the number of hate groups too.)
All this, remember, is in the context of a segment allegedly devoted to the motives of the Boston bombers, who specifically cited U.S. foreign policy as the reason for their attack—and who, as immigrants of central Asian descent, are not likely to be beloved by the sorts of bigots who are terrified by America's demographic shift. So what does Potok have to say about them?
Listening to what Tamerlan Tsarnaev read and so on, you know, what I think it shows you, in part, is that these guys were significantly more Americanized than many of us thought. They had very much gone down the rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking and absorbed all kinds of ideas—"the world is not as it seems" and so on. That's a very American preoccupation.
Yes, it is. (Hey: I just wrote a book about that!) But it isn't exactly an unknown idea in the former Soviet Union or the Islamic world either. At any rate, that isn't what interests Wagner, who responds to Potok's comment with this:
We talk about this happening in some sectors of the American political scene, which is the dovetailing between sort of a radical libertarian agenda and a sort of Southern, racist, post-neo-Confederate attitude towards governance, and that view informing a certain sector of American politics. Is that recent?
And they're off. The Tsarnaevs are occasionally mentioned in passing in the remainder of the segment, but Wagner has found her comfort zone.