Watch Out For Those Crazy Right Wingers!

The Extremism and Radicalization Branch, Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division of the Department of Homeland Security has released a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” You can read it here.

Of course, there are crazies of all stripes, and it’s possible that a small group of “right wingers” could pose a terrorist threat. In principle, there is nothing wrong with assessing such threats from whatever direction they may come. Still, this report is an odd document. It is almost entirely unmoored to any empirical reality and appears to be heavily influenced by the political views of its (unidentified) authors. This is the central theme of the report:

The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.

The whole point of the report is that “right wing” extremism is undergoing a “resurgence” as leaders of extremist groups take advantage of the down economy and the Obama administration to recruit new members. Weirdly, however, the report makes no effort to document any such increased recruitment or extremist activity of any sort. As far as one can tell from the report, “right wing” militias and similar groups may be dying out rather than growing.

[T]he consequences of a prolonged economic downturn–including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit–could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.

I suppose that’s possible. But why right wing extremists? Why not left wing? I would think that economic turmoil would be at least as likely to energize far-left groups. But whoever wrote the report made the automatic assumption–again, with no empirical data–that right-wing groups would benefit.

Another of the report’s themes is that conditions today resemble those in the 1990s, when militia activity was a concern:

The current economic and political climate has some similarities to the 1990s when rightwing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers. …

Growth of these groups subsided in reaction to increased government scrutiny as a result of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and disrupted plots, improvements in the economy, and the continued U.S. standing as the preeminent world power.

In 1995, the economy was booming. Nor is there any obvious similarity between the “political climate” now and in the 1990s, except that we have a Democratic administration in power. I suspect that’s what the authors are really worried about, although they never quite come out and say so.

The Homeland Security report lists the possibility of restrictions on firearms as a driving force behind extremist recruitment:

Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of rightwing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government.

On its face, this is pure speculation. It’s true that firearms sales have increased, but what evidence is there that those buying guns are “planning and training for violence against the government”? None that the report discloses.

The authors describe “rightwing extremist chatter” on the internet:

Rightwing extremist chatter on the Internet continues to focus on the economy, the perceived loss of U.S. jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors, and home foreclosures. Anti-Semitic extremists attribute these losses to a deliberate conspiracy conducted by a cabal of Jewish “financial elites.”

That’s pretty sinister, all right: focusing on jobs and the economy. As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, you’ll find much more of that on left-wing sites (including many that are considered mainstream) than on right-wing sites. That, though, must be the subject of another report.

Whoever wrote the report seems deeply hostile to conservatives’ opposition to the agenda of the Obama administration. For example:

Many rightwing extremists are antagonistic toward the new presidential administration and its perceived stance on a range of issues, including immigration and citizenship, the expansion of social programs to minorities, and restrictions on firearms ownership and use. Rightwing extremists are increasingly galvanized by these concerns and leverage them as drivers for recruitment.

Millions of Americans–not just “rightwing extremists”–are concerned about the administration’s positions on immigration and many other issues. Note that wherever possible, the authors slip race into the discussion, as with the reference to “expansion of social programs to minorities.” I’m not aware of a single social program that the Obama administration has proposed to “expand to minorities.” But the authors’ assumption is, apparently, that anyone who opposes the expansion of social programs must be a racist. Once again we see the assertion that right wing extremists are “galvanized” and are “leveraging” these issues as “drivers for recruitment.” But is recruitment up, down, or stable? The report doesn’t say, and its authors evidently don’t know.

The report returns to its theme of the similarity between conditions today and in the 1990s:

Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage.

What do abortion and gay marriage have to do with white supremacy? Nothing. Many millions of Americans oppose abortion and a majority oppose gay marriage, yet these commonplace views are somehow associated in the minds of the report’s authors with “white supremacists.” This tells us more, I think, about the people who wrote the report than it does about abortion and gay marriage opponents.

It’s not hard to see where the authors stand on immigration, either:

Rightwing extremists were concerned during the 1990s with the perception that illegal immigrants were taking away American jobs through their willingness to work at significantly lower wages.

That, once again, is a view shared by many millions of Americans.

Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.

Is it just my imagination, or does the acknowledgement that debate over immigration policy is protected speech seem a bit grudging? The authors cite a single example in support of that last assertion:

In April 2007, six militia members were arrested for various weapons and explosives violations. Open source reporting alleged that those arrested had discussed and conducted surveillance for a machinegun attack on Hispanics.

I’ve not been able to find any reference to the alleged plot against Hispanics in any news account of this arrest. The link to immigration comes from “open source reporting;” does that mean that the report is relying on left-wing blogs? If not, what does it mean?

One of the report’s most offensive features is its casual defamation of servicemen and veterans:

A prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.”

The “prominent civil rights organization” is the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center. But what support is there for SPLC’s assertion that there are “large numbers” of “white supremacists” serving in the armed forces–as opposed to, say, a “tiny handful”? The SPLC’s full report is entirely anecdotal; the closest thing to data is this:

[Scott] Barfield, who is based at Fort Lewis, said he has identified and submitted evidence on 320 extremists there in the past year.

But even this alleged statistic appears to be false. Barfield was a gang investigator, and what he actually said was: “I have identified 320 soldiers as gang members from April 2002 to present.” So we now have the Department of Homeland Security defaming our servicemen on the basis of a press release by a left-wing pressure group that misrepresented the principal empirical support for its claim. Nice.

The Homeland Security report further supports its suspicion of returning veterans by referring to an FBI report released last year:

The FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white supremacist movement that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.

So, how many are “some”? You can read the FBI report, titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11,” here. Notwithstanding the deliberate vagueness of the Homeland Security document, the FBI was actually very specific:

A review of FBI white supremacist extremist cases from October 2001 to May 2008 identified 203 individuals with confirmed or claimed military service active in the extremist movement at some time during the reporting period. This number is minuscule in comparison with the projected US veteran population of 23,816,000 as of 2 May 2008, or the 1,416,037 active duty military personnel as of 30 April 2008. …

According to FBI information, an estimated 19 veterans (approximately 9 percent of the 203) have verified or unverified service in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There you have it: a whopping 19 actual or alleged veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan have joined the “extremist movement.” (The FBI notes that some of these “may have inflated their resumes with fictional military experience to impress others within the movement.”)

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this Homeland Security report is politically motivated, and reflects the authors’ political prejudices more than an objective evaluation of a significant terrorist threat. In that context, the report’s conclusion seems a bit ominous:

DHS/I&A will be working with its state and local partners over the next several months to ascertain with greater regional specificity the rise in rightwing extremist activity in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the political, economic, and social factors that drive rightwing extremist radicalization.

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