First the terrible crime, then the terrible idea. In the wake of the Overland Park shooting spree of April 13, in which a neo-Nazi killed three people at a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City, the notion is being floated, yet again, that we might be able to stop such crimes if only we were less rigid about the Bill of Rights.
The shooter, who has gone by various names over the years but has usually been known as Glenn Miller, has a long history as a vocal white supremacist and anti-Semite. This background prompted Emily Bazelon to write an essay in Slate headlined "A History of Hate" and subtitled "Could anything have been done to stop Frazier Glenn Miller?" Miller, she notes, posted frequently on Vanguard News Network, a website so drenched in malice toward nonwhites and Jews that it makes Stormfront look like Shalom Sesame. Comparing America's legal tolerance for hateful speech with the more restrictive rules found in many other nations, Bazelon writes: "If you think we have the balance wrong, you have company."
The Slate story stops short of endorsing controls on bigoted speech, but it also stops short of rejecting them. And Bazelon offers no caveats when she invokes the Department of Homeland Security's infamous 2009 report on right-wing extremism, bemoaning the backlash that led the department to renounce the paper and to reduce its staff devoted to the domestic right. Law enforcement, Bazelon writes, "should quit training all their resources on Islamists and start watching people like Miller."
Similar sentiments have surfaced in other venues. "We have recently seen in Kansas the deadly destruction and loss of life that hate speech can fuel in the United States," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said this week. "Not all hate speech leads to physical acts of violence, but all hate speech is a form of violence," the Bergen Record editorialized. And in an April 15 op-ed for The New York Times, historian Kathleen Belew echoed Bazelon's complaints about the DHS paper's fate: "The department shelved the report, removing it from its website. The threat, however, proved real."
Now, it's certainly true that Miller has a long history as a notorious bigot. When I was growing up in North Carolina, he and his organizations—first the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, then the White Patriot Party—were fixtures in the news. He was in one of the cars in the caravan that opened fire on anti-Klan activists, killing five, in the Greensboro Massacre of 1979. As head of the Carolina Knights he sent his troops to intimidate blacks in the area, and after going underground in the mid-'80s he issued a hit list to "Aryan warriors" that awarded different numbers of points for murdering different targets: "Niggers (1), White race traitors (10), Jews (10), Judges (50), Morris Seligman Dees (888)." (Dees is the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.) Miller finally got caught with a cache of weapons that violated so many laws that he could have been imprisoned for decades for them alone, quite apart from the crimes he was plotting to commit with them.
But he wasn't imprisoned for decades. He turned snitch, agreeing to testify that two former comrades had killed customers at a gay-oriented porn shop and taking the stand in a sedition trial of 13 white supremacists. He ended up doing far more to hurt than to help the prosecutors: He probably perjured himself, and when the defense poked holes in his claims the government lost credibility with the jurors. (In each case where he testified, the prosecution lost.) Still, his cooperation got him out of a lot of jail time. He was sentenced to just five years, and he served only three.
Of all the policies that someone might want to second-guess here, the First Amendment shouldn't even enter the top 50. Miller isn't a man with a history of nasty but peaceful speech who suddenly snapped; he's a man with a history of violence who committed yet another violent crime. To return to the question in Bazelon's subtitle—"Could anything have been done to stop Frazier Glenn Miller?"—the answer is: Yes, but it doesn't have anything to do with restricting Americans' speech rights. Miller could have been put away for eons way back in 1987, but instead the government offered him a deal.
And that DHS report that Bazelon and Belew want to rehabilitate? Its biggest problem is that it blurs the boundaries between "extremist" opinions and actual violence—the same error on display when people react to Miller's murders by saying the state should keep an eye on all that hate speech out there. The paper's author, Daryl Johnson, hasn't been consistent about whether he meant to call nonviolent extremism a threat, but usually he says that he did. "Extremism has a much broader definition [than criminal or violent behavior], because it is the phase that precedes terrorism," he wrote in 2012. "Extremism involves ideologies that facilitate individuals and groups toward violence and terrorism." This is the attitude that disturbed civil libertarians when the report was leaked. It is also unhelpful in understanding Miller's crime, since Miller's long history of hateful speech didn't precede his career as a terrorist so much as it accompanied it.
Belew's chief interest in the DHS report is to defend its discussion of veterans. Johnson's paper, she writes,
singled out one factor that has fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present: war. The return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor. "Military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists carrying out violent attacks," the report warned. The agency was "concerned that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities."
Whatever you think of this argument, it's a stretch for Belew to get from there to her conclusion that this "threat…proved real." The DHS was worried that far-right groups would recruit from the troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Miller was neither a new recruit to the right nor a veteran of America's post-9/11 battles—the war he fought in was Vietnam.
Finally, let's try to put an end to this absurd claim that the security state's police are devoting "all their resources," as Bazelon put it, to Muslims. Fusion centers—intelligence-sharing shops that are run on the state and local levels but get a lot of money from DHS—continue to churn out reports on all manner of alleged threats to the homeland, not just the Islamic ones. Daryl Johnson doesn't work for the Department of Homeland Security anymore, but he still makes a living in the homeland security business, running a consulting company called DT Analytics that contracts with fusion centers and police departments. Meanwhile, undercover cops have run terror stings aimed not just at Muslims but at other Americans, from the far right to the far left.
If those infiltrators didn't catch wind of Glenn Miller's plans while they were playing agent provocateur, it isn't the first time a police apparatus missed a threat. You can give an agency power and resources, but that doesn't mean it's going to use them wisely. Keep that in mind as people propose plans they think could stop such crimes from happening again.