When the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security released a report this past August raising concern about the rise of "right-wing extremist activity," a debate erupted over whether the findings were politically motivated or based on factual analysis.
A slew of stories of right-wing violence -- from the shooting at the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum to attacks on IRS buildings -- seem to verify DHS's warnings. And a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks instances of violent extremism, provides further evidence.
On Tuesday, the SPLC released its quarterly intelligence report, titled "Rage on the Right," in which it charted what officials described as "an astonishing" rise in "nativist extremist" and anti-government "Patriotic" groups. The former, which includes institutions that "go beyond mere advocacy of restrictive immigration policy to actually confront or harass suspected immigrants," saw its numbers bulge from 173 groups in 2008 to 309 in 2009. The latter saw an even larger explosion in numbers, going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) in 2008 to 512 (including 127 militias) in 2009.
"That is cause for grave concern," the SPLC concludes. "Individuals associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead."
The entire report presents a rather grim and alarming portrait of the state of extremist organizations in America. Pointing to media figures (Fox News's Glenn Beck) and lawmakers (Rep. Michele Bachmann) who have indulged in some of the conspiracy theories that drive these groups and their members, the SPLC suggests that a radical ethos is gradually becoming institutionalized in American politics.
Hate groups, the report concludes, "stayed at record levels -- almost 1,000 -- despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America. Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80%, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called "Patriot" groups -- militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose "one-world government" on liberty-loving Americans -- came roaring back after years out of the limelight."
There is, however, an important caveat to add to the findings. For all of the unglamorous work it does documenting the rise of extremism, the SPLC has been accused of occasionally making mountains out of molehills. Some of the groups it classifies as threats can be better described as having a threatening message but being impotent in reality.
In March 2007, Ken Silverstein of Harpers Magazine, pointed to the massive financial resources the group had on hand (per its tax filings) and concluded that: "What [SPLC] does best... is to raise obscene amounts of money by hyping fears about the power of those groups; hence the SPLC has become the nation's richest "civil rights" organization."