07/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Very Real Threat of Extremism

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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Yesterday's tragic shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, by an "88-year-old white supremacist," is the latest in a string of right-wing extremist attacks. The number of hate groups such as the "Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and Black separatists" operating in the United States is at an all-time high, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Moreover, gun purchases since President Obama's election surged. However, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declassified a report "detailing potential increases in right-wing extremism" in April, right-wing commentators and Republican politicians decried the report as a politically motivated attack on all conservatives. They claimed that "the Obama administration is targeting conservatives and others simply because they disagree with administration policies and proposals." Ignoring that the report -- like a similar one describing the threat of left-wing extremists -- was commissioned by the Bush administration, conservatives called for the resignation of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Media Matters Action Fund's Matt Finkelstein asks, "Will Republicans admit that their partisan 'outrage' was misplaced?"

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: The declassified DHS report warned, "Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely." The report further warned, "The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment." This description reflected recent extremist violence, including the July 2008 shooting spree in a Knoxville church "because of its liberal teachings," a thwarted attempt to assassinate Obama in October by two neo-Nazi skinheads, and "a racially motivated rape and murder spree in Brockton, MA" by a 22-year-old white supremacist the "day after Barack Obama was inaugurated." Since the report was issued last April, the trail of death has continued. "We have seen not only the murder of an abortion physician by a member of the radical right, but the murders of five law enforcement officers -- three police officers in Pittsburgh, two sheriff's deputies in Florida by radical right-wing extremists," SPLC's Mark Potok told CNN. "It's really been quite an extraordinary period." The Pittsburgh shooter "feared the Obama administration was poised to ban guns," and the Florida killer was "severely disturbed that Barack Obama had been elected President." In an incident earlier this month, a "lone wolf" American Muslim extremist "shot and killed Army Pvt. William Long" outside a Little Rock, AR, mall in anger over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

CONSERVATIVES VS. EXTREMISTS: Conservative politicians led the attack on the DHS report. Both House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) called it "offensive." Others went further: Gun advocate Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) claimed "the report has no intelligence value and only serves to blur our constitutional protections, such as the Second Amendment," and Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) argued that "it looks like the extremists are those running the DHS." "What is the Department of Homeland Security calling us now?" Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked at an April 15 tea party protest. "Extremists? Well, give me a button." "Now if you disagree with that liberal path that President Obama's taken the country down," Fox News' Sean Hannity claimed, "you may soon catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security." Texas Rep. John Carter (R-TX), after demanding Napolitano's firing on the House floor, told Politico, "Singling out political opponents for working against the ruling party is precisely the tactic of every tyrannical government from Red China to Venezuela." As Mother Jones's James Ridgeway observed, "Conservatives haven't been branded dangerous extremists by DHS or the Obama administration; they've branded themselves."

'WARNING US FOR A REASON': Following the Holocaust Museum shooting, two Fox News personalities, Shepard Smith and Catherine Herridge, suggested that critics of DHS's report on right-wing extremism should re-think their objections. "The right went absolutely bonkers" over the report, said Smith, adding that DHS was "warning us for a reason." Though some conservatives have concluded that the recent string of right-wing violence has "vindicated" the DHS report, many others disagree. Blogger and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin, who led the charge against the DHS report, approvingly linked to a military blogger that called Smith and Herridge "pathetic." Malkin's Hot Air colleague, Ed Morrissey, defended the criticism of the report by claiming that it didn't "mention anti-semitism at all." But as Huffington Post's Sam Stein points out, the DHS report "warned specifically about an upswing of anti-Semitic behavior." "At this point it's little consolation," CBS News's Charles Cooper observes, "but Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano turned out to be more prescient about domestic extremism than many of her critics."