The evidence so far suggests that Jared Loughner is simply a mentally disturbed assassin, an American archetype with plenty of historical antecedents. Think John Hinckley Jr. and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme rather than John Wilkes Booth. Loughner’s obsession with “lucid dreams,” his muddled conspiracies about government mind control, and his rants on bad grammar all defy a coherent worldview grounded on either the left or the right.
Still, after the 22-year-old Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 18 others in Tucson, critically wounding the lawmaker and killing six, perhaps it was inevitable that the debate would focus on whether the vitriol in today’s politics has increased the risks of violence against public officials. Two threat assessments of left-wing and right-wing extremism issued by the Homeland Security Department early in 2009 are instructive. That one of the warnings had the recently installed DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano fighting for her job foreshadowed the angry charges and countercharges now surrounding the Tucson tragedy.
The DHS report on left-wing extremism noted the risk posed by groups that embrace anti-capitalist or communist beliefs and who seek to “bring about change through violent revolution.” But the nearest thing to a clear and present danger from that quarter that it could cite in 2009 came from ecoterrorists and radical animal activists. Not so DHS’s report titled “Right-Wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”
With popular commentators such as Fox News’s Glenn Beck routinely promulgating the Far Right’s dark conspiracy theories—such as the idea that the government might be creating internment camps for its political opponents—it’s not so surprising that the report became embroiled in the capital’s partisan wars. It arguably defined “right-wing extremism” too broadly by suggesting that it included those who “reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.” It also tread clumsily into a political minefield by predicting that right-wing extremist groups would try to recruit and radicalize disgruntled military veterans, and by pointing out in a footnote that the extremist pantheon includes groups and individuals dedicated to single issues, like opposition to abortion and to immigration.
Largely as a result of those assertions, Republicans denounced the DHS report as a smear. Never mind that the report had been commissioned under the Bush administration. Republican lawmakers called for Napolitano’s resignation.
Among intelligence analysts and law-enforcement experts, however, the report’s core findings were not particularly controversial. The gist of it held that the election of the nation’s first black president and the severe economic downturn presented “unique drivers” for recruitment and radicalization by antigovernment and white-supremacist groups; that those groups would likely target for recruitment disgruntled service members returning from war who possessed sought-after skills; and that the current economic and political climate has similarities to the 1990s, which saw a surge in antigovernment violence that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by a small group of former soldiers led by Timothy McVeigh.
Compelling empirical data support each of those assertions. In the run-up to Barack Obama’s election in 2008, for instance, law enforcement thwarted two extremist plots targeting him. That white-supremacist and antigovernment groups intensified their recruiting efforts on the Internet after Obama’s election was a statement of fact, not a matter of conjecture. Ditto the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition, in some cases by right-wing extremists, a “primary concern of law enforcement” after three police officers in Pennsylvania were shot dead in 2009 by a racist gunman who believed in “antigovernment conspiracy theories related to gun confiscations, citizen detention camps, and a Jewish-controlled ‘one world government.’ ”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, their numbers did indeed increase between 2000 and 2008, from 608 to 926. Meanwhile, the FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white-supremacist movement that some service members had returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and joined extremist groups. Concerns that antigovernment extremists might try to recruit service members knowledgeable in firearms and explosives—a fear that law-enforcement officials readily share after the devastating experience of McVeigh—are reflected in instructions that the Defense Department issued to base commanders to counter such recruitment.
The record also shows that some anti-immigrant and anti-abortion extremists are willing to resort to violence. Besides a documented rise in anti-Hispanic hate crimes, the DHS report notes the 2007 arrest of six militia members who conducted surveillance for a machine-gun attack on Hispanics—and the further arrests of radical militia members in Alabama, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania on firearms and explosives charges. In 2009, 67-year-old George Tiller became the ninth abortion doctor or clinical worker killed by anti-abortion extremists in the United States in the past 15 years.
“When I read the DHS report on right-wing extremism, there was almost nothing in it that struck me as inaccurate or even very surprising, because historically we’ve seen these cyclical spasms of antigovernment agitation and violence going back to the Civil War,” said Bruce Hoffman, a longtime terrorism expert and the director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
What’s different today, he notes, is that the Internet has provided connective tissue for those scattered on the extremist fringe. “The danger to keep your eye on now is whether Loughner’s attack serves as a catalyst for a rash of copycat attacks, because the 24/7 news coverage and blogosphere may spin up antigovernment extremists who today can find like-minded people much easier on the Internet.”
This article appears in the January 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.