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About That DHS Report on Right-Wing Extremists

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Fringe extremism is a scary, sometimes deadly reality, regardless of the ideology that creates it.

In early April, a Department of Homeland Security report detailing potential increases in right-wing extremism was made public. The report concluded that "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 report also cited as potential mobilizing issues for right-wing extremism "immigration and citizenship, the expansion of social programs to minorities, and restrictions on firearms ownership and use."

The DHS also cited a 2008 FBI report from the Bush administration in which the FBI's Counterterrorism Division found with "[h]igh confidence" that "[m]ilitary experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement as the result of recruitment campaigns by extremist groups and self-recruitment by veterans sympathetic to white supremacist causes."

For many, the report was a chilling reminder of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 American men, women, and children.

To others, namely media conservatives, the report was seen as an affront to conservatives and conservatism in general.

In the days and weeks following the release of the DHS report, conservative cable news and radio hosts, columnists, bloggers, and political pundits mounted an all-out assault on the Obama administration for, in their eyes, targeting those who disagree with his policies.

CNN's Lou Dobbs asked viewers, "Do you think a person concerned about borders and ports that are unsecured, illegal immigration, Second Amendment rights, or a returning veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely or even possibly probable, as the Department of Homeland Security suggests, to be a right-wing extremist?"

Fox News' Sean Hannity said of the report, "Now if you disagree with that liberal path that President Obama's taken the country down, you may soon catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security."

Michelle Malkin posted an entry on her conservative blog titled "Confirmed: The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives is real," writing, "[T]he piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives."

During an appearance on Fox News, conservative columnist William Kristol called the report "juvenile," saying it "reveal[ed]" that the Obama administration "think[s] about veterans" as "pathological killers." It must have slipped Kristol's mind that the DHS report drew upon a Bush-era FBI report for its conclusion on some returning "military personnel."

Responding to the report, Michael Savage, America's third-most-listened-to radio host, declared that the government was out "to take your" freedom and guns, predicting "a Reichstag fire in this country within one year."

And yet, even to conservatives often thought of as more reasonable, like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, it was the Obama administration that was stoking fear, and worse.

This DHS report was hardly unique. In fact, just a few months earlier, on January 26, the DHS issued a similar assessment of left-wing extremism, concluding that "a number of emerging trends point to leftwing extremists maturing and expanding their cyber attack capabilities over the next decade with the aim of attacking targets in the United States."

It mattered little that similar reports on the threat of other extremist elements had been released in the past. Acknowledging the existence of such reports would be to deny the conservative chattering class yet another opportunity to stoke the fears of its audience.

Far from lumping all conservatives, liberals, and religious people in with the fringe extremist elements of which they speak, these reports are meant to warn law-enforcement agencies of potential domestic security threats.

Of late, we've seen too much evidence to ignore the threat of homegrown extremism, right-wing or otherwise.

On April 4, Richard Poplawski, a conspiracy nut who embraced radical rhetoric and, as one friend put it, feared "the Obama gun ban that's on the way" (no such ban is in the works) and "didn't like our rights being infringed upon," shot and killed three police officers.

On May 31, Dr. George Tiller, whose clinic legally performed late-term abortions, was shot to death as he entered his Kansas church by Scott Roeder, an anti-choice extremist. In 1985, Tiller's clinic was bombed, and in 1993, he was shot in both arms by an anti-choice activist.

On June 1, Muslim convert Abdulhakim Bledsoe, in an act of domestic terrorism, opened fire on a military recruiting center in Arkansas, killing Pvt. William Long and wounding Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula.

On June 12, James W. von Brunn, a reported white supremacist with extreme anti-government views, entered the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a rifle, shooting and killing a security guard while leaving another unnamed victim injured.

In the wake of these attacks, it shouldn't be too much to ask that these reports be taken seriously rather than used to score political points. Unfortunately, media conservatives seem more interested in stoking the unfounded fears of their audience -- the government is somehow out to get them -- than they are in the security and safety of the American people.

After all, a frightened audience is a captive audience.

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Karl Frisch is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.