The Re-Emerging Threat of Right-Wing Violence
Posted: June 10, 2009
As the United States nears the end of the first decade of the 21st century, one thing is clear: domestic terrorism as well as international terrorism continues to represent a clear threat to American lives, liberties, and welfare.
One of the sources of domestic terrorism worthy of attention is right-wing violence. This can take the form of actions by organized hate groups or by "lone wolves," individuals or occasionally pairs of people who do not belong to any specific extremist organization but are motivated by their own beliefs and anger to commit violent acts. Prisons are another source of problems, serving as a breeding ground for extremism.
In recent months, anti-government extremist movements, such as the militia sovereign citizen movement, have been growing in size and activity. These movements, as well as the white supremacist movement, have demonstrated growing levels of anger, intensity and agitation.
Two key factors have directly or indirectly played a role:
1) The U.S. is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the early 1980s and perhaps since the Great Depression. Extremist movements often try to take advantage of such crises, capitalizing on both the anger and desperation of people affected by them. In particular, there has been disturbing evidence of anti-Semitism springing from the crisis, in some cases even crossing over from the extremist world into the mainstream.
2) The election of Barack Obama as president has galvanized both the anti-government and white supremacist wings of the extreme right. The anti-government extremists believe Obama will try to usher in the "New World Order" through gun confiscation, martial law, and even concentration camps. White supremacists often believe the same things, but also have both racist and anti-Semitic related rage as well.
Already there have been several major shocking acts of attempts at violence since the final weeks of the presidential campaign:
1) October 2008. Two white supremacists planning to go on a massive shooting spree in Tennessee, then to assassinate candidate Obama, were caught before they could act.
2) January 2009. A white supremacist embarked upon a brutally violent killing spree in a Massachusetts suburb, targeting non-whites and Jews. He killed two immigrants and raped and shot a third. Police apprehended him before he could reach his final destination: a nearby synagogue in which he wanted to open fire.
3) April 2009. A white supremacist, full of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-government conspiracy theories, ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers.
4) May 2009. An anti-government sovereign citizen and anti-abortion activist shot and killed a physician in Wichita, Kansas.
Significantly, many of the recent acts of right-wing domestic terrorism have been the work of "lone wolves," individuals or occasionally pairs of people who do not belong to any specific extremist group or organization, but are motivated by their own beliefs and anger to commit violent acts. All four of the right-wing acts of violence mentioned above are examples of this lone wolf phenomenon.
"Lone wolf"-style violence is especially troubling in two ways. First, such acts are very hard for police agencies to prevent. Federal and local law enforcement agencies alike generally have an excellent record in preventing the vast majority of terrorist plots and conspiracies from ever actually being carried out. Lone wolf perpetrators, on the other hand, are often caught (assuming they do not kill themselves) only in the midst of, or after, an attack.
Second, "lone wolf" violence is often deadly. One reason is that, although bombings do sometimes occur, shootings or shooting sprees are often the preferred tactic of choice.
One additional noteworthy factor present in most of the recent "lone wolf" acts was the young age of the alleged perpetrators. The white supremacists in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts were all only in their early 20s.
Growing Problems in Prisons
Prisons have increasingly become a source of multiplying problems, particularly because of the growth of the sovereign citizen movement and racist prison gangs.
- Sovereign citizens. In the 1990s, hundreds of members of the anti-government "sovereign citizen" movement were sentenced to prison. Many did not cease their activities but instead started teaching their tactics to other prisoners, ranging from drug dealers to embezzlers. As a result, in the 2000s, many of these prisoners-turned-sovereigns are attempting to retaliate against the officials who put them in prison..
- Racist Prison Gangs. Among the best organized and most violent of all white supremacist groups, racist prison gangs are no longer just active behind prison walls. In many states, such groups—which combine the criminal expertise of organized crime with the anger of homegrown white supremacy—are now very active on the streets and in neighborhoods. A sizable number of the extremist-related murders in 2008 were committed by members of such gangs. Their actions range from drug-dealing to hate crimes, and their increased presence on the streets has led to more connections with "traditional" white supremacists.
One problem that the U.S. faces in dealing with these issues is the lack of a single prison system. The federal prison system, 50 different state systems, and some local jails all face some of the same problems, making it difficult to come up with or implement comprehensive strategies.