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Defining Domestic Terrorism Part Three: Conservative Politicians Downplay Threat from the Far Right

01/03/2016 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2016
  • Phillip Martin Sr. Investigative Reporter WGBH Radio Boston; Sr. Fellow Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism

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President Obama on NPR recently was asked about the threat posed by domestic terrorists.

"If you just look at the numbers," he said, "then non-Islamic, non-foreign-motivated terrorist actions have killed at least as many Americans on American soil as those who were promoted by jihadists."

Experts on terrorism agree, but argue that some conservative politicians downplay this fact. The question is why? I began my inquiry by speaking with a man who purposely stays above the fray of politics. John Carlin's focus is on the law.

"I'm the Assistant Attorney General for the US Justice Department for National Security at the Justice Department."

Carlin is front and center in the war against radical-jihadist lone wolves like the San Bernardino killers and the Boston Marathon Bombers.

"We're focused day in and day out on international terrorists right now, and rightly so."

But Carlin is also on a broader mission: to root out home grown extremists like Robert Dear, who confessed in open court to killing three at a Colorado Planned Parenthood women's health clinic in December, and Dylan Roof, who faces capital charges in the murders of nine black worshipers at a church in Charleston, SC, last summer.

"If the suspect were Muslim, I think we'd go very quickly to a definition of terrorism"--Charles Kurzman, UNC Chapel Hill

"Among domestic extremist movements inside the United States the white supremacists are among the most violent," said Carlin.

In fact, extremists from America's far right wing have carried out well over half of the deadliest terror attacks on American soil since 9/11; a fact acknowledged by Carlin in an October address at George Washington University.

"The list includes plots and attacks on government buildings, businesses, synagogues. It includes the stockpiling of illegal weapons, explosive biological and chemical weapons and killing sprees that have terrorized local communities."

In recent days and weeks, an armed right-wing militia has (currently) occupied the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; mosques around the country have been fired on, burnt or defaced; men described as white supremacists shot up peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis (the accused shooter, Allen Lawrence Scarsella, 23, was charged with five counts of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and one count of second-degree riot); several white supremacists were arrested in Virginia for allegedly plotting to blow up black churches and mosques; and heavily armed right-wing gunmen blocked the entrance of a mosque in Irving, Texas, holding banners that read, "we are the solution to Islamic terrorism."

So why aren't homegrown extremists stirring up the same public fear as those claiming to be acting in the name of Islam?

"I imagine that this is a hangover from the attacks of September 11, 2001," said Charles Kurzman.

Kurzman is a terrorism expert at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a Professor of sociology specializing in Middle East and Islamic studies.

"And there's the fear then that Muslim Americans might be in some ways an avenue or a mechanism that those threats might come to the United States. Fortunately, we've seen very little violent extremism by Muslim Americans in the years since 9/11."

Politics, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center or SPLC, explains why there has been less emphasis on right-wing extremism.

"There's no question that we see a great deal of domestic terrorism and attempted terrorism coming from the home grown radical right. The non-Islamist radical right. But it's absolutely true that many politicians and leaders in this society entirely do not understand that."

So why aren't homegrown extremists stirring up the same public fear as those claiming to be acting in the name of Islam? --"I imagine that this is a hangover from the attacks of September 11, 2001"

2016-01-03-1451836592-7186607-activehategroupsmap.pngCredit SPLC / Southern Poverty Law Center

Potok ,who tracks extremists for the SPLC, said time and time again prominent Republicans have downplayed the dangers posed by right-wing extremism. He cited a 2009 Justice Department report warning of potential violence, partly in reaction to the election of a black President, titled "Right wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment."

Republicans were furious with then Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and House Minority Leader John Boehner led the charge at the time.

"I think Secretary Napolitano has an awful lot of explaining to do."

Boehner said the report broadly smeared anyone who disagreed with Washington Democrats on issues like immigration and the economy.

"When you look at this report on right wing extremists, it includes about two-thirds of Americans," said Boehner.

Anti-government may be the key word and common denominator here. Right-wing radicals describe themselves that way and conservative politicians court votes by proclaiming their anti-government bonafides.

Another example underplaying the realities of domestic terrorism occurred in 2010 with the first in a series of Congressional hearings convened by New York Congressman Peter King.

2016-01-03-1451838078-4245761-APTOPIX_Muslims_Terror_Hearings_0c12f.jpgRep Peter King (R-NY) chairing a hearing on radicalization of Muslim Americans.

"This hearing will be the first dealing with the critical issue of the radicalization of Muslim Americans," said King as he gaveled the enquiry to order.

The SPLC's Mark Potok was among many critics who viewed Representative King's investigation as an exercise in oppugnancy directed at U.S. Muslim communities.

"The greatest moment of kind of screaming hypocrisy in terms of the kind of groups we're looking at in society came when Peter King opened his hearings into the ostensibly radicalization of homegrown domestic American Muslims."

Congressman King-- who chairs a House Sub-Committee on counter-terrorism-- seemed cognizant of the perceived double standard. "I'm well aware that the announcement of these hearings have generated considerable controversy and opposition," he said at the start of the enquiry.

"What King seems not to have noticed," said Potok, "is the very day before he gave that talk to the nation's television cameras, a man was arrested in Spokane Washington for attempting to murder hundreds of people marching in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade."

The SPLC had tracked this man for years. He was a Neo-Nazi and a member of the National Alliance, which at one time was the most important Neo-Nazi group in the country.

"So when a guy like Peter King gets up there and says to millions of Americans through the TV cameras that there is no problem with the domestic radical right, he is simply stupid or he's lying," said Potok.

WGBH News reached out to Congressman King for this story and received no reply. Charles Kurzman, the UNC anti-terrorism expert, said Peter King's hearing remains an important example of how politics has shaped the debate on terrorism.

"Because Congressman King on the eve of the hearing was asked about my research and denounced the research as biased and slanted and downplayed and dismissed other terrorism threats that law enforcement is telling us are quite serious."

When a guy like Peter King gets up there and says to millions of Americans through the TV cameras that there is no problem with the domestic radical right, he is simply stupid or he's lying.

And the refusal to take far right wing violence seriously has also set up a double standard in how these cases are pursued. Take Dylan Roof, who faces a total of 33 federal hate crime charges in the Charleston Church shootings.

2016-01-03-1451836966-6838328-RacistRallySC.jpgPro-confederate flag rally in S.C. that followed Dylan Roof's killing nine church goers in Charleston

Said Kurzman: "If the suspect were Muslim, I think we'd go very quickly to a definition of terrorism."

Yet some, like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, stop short of that label, describing Roof as mentally unstable. Graham, a Republican, who has been outspoken on national security issues, wrestles with how to classify Roof's alleged actions.

GRAHAM: "You could say it was a hate crime on steroids. Clearly it was. But he was not part of an organized effort with a particular agenda. He's a whacked out kid who follows the teachings of whacked out people. But it's not an organized effort like the Islamic State in the Levant. However, having said that, it wasn't a random act of violence either. It is domestic terrorism. What I'm trying to do is not portray them as ISIL. They're not part of an organized effort to hold territory and expand power."

Phillip Martin: But that would also be true of the Boston Marathon Bombers. They're what we would call lone wolves.

GRAHAM: "That's right, they're lone wolves who were inspired by the people who want to create jihad and are answering the call of the jihadists to hit us in our back yard."

But Dylan Roof was also inspired. In this case by white supremacists and a movement most Americans have never heard of.

He's a whacked out kid who follows the teachings of whacked out people. But it's not an organized effort like the Islamic State in the Levant --Sen Lindsey Graham on Dylann Roof

"According to one study of state and law enforcement, the group that they are most concerned about in terms of causing violence are the Sovereign Citizens," said John Carlin of the DOJ.

"And to be clear it's o.k. to be a Sovereign Citizen. What we're looking for are those fueled by that ideology who want to commit violent attacks."

Sovereign Citizens don't recognize courts or the Federal government. The best-known sovereign was Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Others include Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who was applauded by conservative media and has been engaged in an armed standoff with government over grazing rights and has dared law enforcement officials to try to arrest him. Since 2000, sovereigns have killed six law enforcement officers, including two in Arkansas during a routine traffic stop in 2010. In Georgia last year, a sovereign citizen attacked a court house with tear gas, smoke grenades and an AR-15 Rifle

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"Just like with international terrorism," said Carlin, "you see people being radicalized, where they go from someone with a series of beliefs to someone who's willing to kill in the name of those beliefs. The new Counsel [domestic counsel on domestic terrorism] that we've created at the national security division is to make sure that we have someone focusing full-time in catching those people before they commit the violent act."

And that's John Carlin's job, now that the Justice Department has made countering right wing extremism a priority.

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This is the third of a four part public radio series:

Defining Domestic Terrorism Part One: Hate Groups Move On-line and On Campus

Defining Domestic Terrorism Part Two: Legal Meaning of a Loaded Word

Defining Domestic Terrorism Part Three: Conservative Politicians Downplay Threat from the Far Right

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