Firing Back on Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism

Sara Robinson

It’s been a wild couple of weeks for those of us in the wingnutology business. Our services have been in tremendous demand as the mainstream media tries to sort out the meaning of what Scott Roeder and James von Brunn did. I’ve done an average of one radio show every day for the past two weeks trying to help various lefty talkers around the country make some sense of it all; and I’m generally gratified at how seriously people are starting to take this.

At the same time, I’m also appalled (though, sadly, hardly surprised) by the conservative myth-making that’s going on around the very serious issue of right-wing domestic terrorism. So it’s obviously time to pull together another “Firing Back” piece to give progressives what they need to separate fact from fiction when these talking points start flying.

I’ve actually had every one of the following myths pitched to me by on-air interviewers, phone-in callers, and/or online commenters over the last two weeks. Most of them have come up over and over, which suggests to me that you’re likely to encounter them, too. So let’s walk ‘em through:

1. These are just “lone wolf” psychos who are acting alone. You can’t hold anybody else responsible for what crazy people decide to do.

True and false. But mostly false.

It’s true that every one of the nine right-wing terrorists who’ve made the news since January 20 had a history of mental illness, domestic violence, and/or drug abuse. Several were veterans who were having a really hard time adjusting to civilian life. None of these people could reasonably be considered sane; and, for whatever twisted reasons, they made a personal choice to do what they did.

But it’s not true that they were acting alone. People who are dealing with these kinds of demons are often drawn into movements that offer a strong narrative that helps them make sense of a world that never seems to add up right for them. They’re usually drawn into organizations like Operation Rescue or the Minutemen that are nominally non-violent; but which also indoctrinate them into a worldview that justifies and motivates people to commit terrorist acts. They come to believe that they must do this to save the world, to serve God, and to be the heroes they desperately want to be.

They’re already walking sticks of dynamite. But it takes the heat of that apocalyptic, dualistic, eliminationist, pro-violence narrative to light their fuses and make them explode.

Unfortunately, these groups also make it easy to take that final step over the line, because they often have close ties to other more secretive groups that do advocate and plan terrorist violence as a solution. Operation Rescue teaches that killing abortion doctors is justifiable homicide; and then feeds its most extreme members into the Army of God. The Aryan Nations and several other white nationalist groups supplied the nine members of The Order, a racist terrorist group that killed two people (including left-wing talker Alan Berg) and stole over $4 million during a nine-month spree in 1984. Al Qaeda got many of its recruits from the nominally non-violent (but still radical) Hizb al-Tahrir. Of course, when violence actually occurs, these groups always denounce it—but they also usually have a very good idea of who was involved, because they’ve been hanging around with the perpetrators for quite a while themselves.

One of the things the public is finally beginning to understand is that the “lone wolf” story has never been accurate, because these guys are never really alone in the world. Every one of them was well-marinated in large, long-established subcultures that put them up to terrorism, and promised to make heroes out of them if they succeeded.

2. These terrorists are really left-wingers, not right-wingers. Because everybody knows that fascism is a phenomenon that only occurs on the left.

False does not even begin to cover the absurdity of this claim.

Fascism has always been a phenomenon of the right. Every postwar academic scholar of fascism—Robert Paxton, Roger Griffin, Umberto Eco, and onward—has been emphatically clear about this. Mussolini admitted as much. It’s part of the very definition of the word.

Jonah Goldberg has gotten a lot of traction on the left for his argument that fascism is somehow a left-wing tendency; but in his badly argued, barely-researched tome Liberal Fascism, he gets here by taking logical leaps that no college professor would accept from the greenest freshman. The worst, perhaps, is the way he conflates “fascism” with “totalitarianism.” There is such a thing as left-wing totalitarianism: Stalinism and Maoism both qualify. But they were communist, not fascist, movements. It’s only when totalitarianism happens on the right that we call it fascism.

Still, this idea has caught on like wildfire, and is being widely promoted by right-wing talkers like Glenn Beck. If you want the full takedown on this, I refer you to Dave Neiwert’s exhaustive series of debunking articles, which are linked to in the sidebar at Orcinus.

3. Public right-wing groups like Operation Rescue or the Minutemen don’t advocate violence, so these acts have absolutely nothing to do with them.

As noted above: these groups may not engage in violence themselves, but they do provide the narrative and worldview that convinces people that terrorism is the only available means of getting what they want. As I wrote here, these narratives have a very specific structure that sets people up for terrorism:

Long before they turn dangerous, political and religious groups take their first step down that road by adopting a worldview that justifies eventual violent action. The particulars of the narrative vary, but the basic themes are always the same. First: their story is apocalyptic, insisting that the end of the world as we’ve known it is near. Second: it divides the world into a Good-versus-Evil/Us-versus-Them dualism that encourages the group to interpret even small personal, social, or political events as major battles in a Great Cosmic Struggle—a habit of mind that leads the group to demonize anyone who disagrees with them. This struggle also encourages members to invest everyday events with huge existential meaning, and as a result sometimes overreact wildly to very mundane stuff.

Third: this split allows for a major retreat from consensus reality and the mainstream culture. The group rejects the idea that they share a common future with the rest of society, and curls up into its own insular worldview that’s impervious to the outside culture’s reasoning or facts. Fourth: insiders feel like they’re a persecuted, prophetic elite who are being opposed by wicked, tyrannical forces. Left to fester, this paranoia will eventually drive the group to make concrete preparations for self-defense—and perhaps go on the offense against their perceived persecutors. Fifth: communities following this logic will also advocate the elimination of their enemies by any means necessary, in order to purify the world for their ideology.

Once people have accepted these ideas as truth, terrorist violence begins to seem like an unavoidable imperative—and lone wolves, smelling blood, will start to hunt for targets.

4. This is just a minority movement that isn’t really capable of changing anything. We don’t really need to worry about it.

False. And evidence of tremendous denial.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the US is up 40% since 2000, with nearly 1000 such groups active across the country right now. Fueled by bone-deep racism, an unnatural terror of liberal government, frustration over the economic downturn, and fears about America’s loss of world standing, they tell us, the militant right is rising again. You can find groups in every corner of the country, incidents of racist violence are rising; and the traffic on far-right websites is up, too.

Make no mistake: the right-wing radicals are angry, and there are enough of them out there to do some real damage. As noted, they’re far more cohesive and better-connected than they’ve ever been. And they’re only getting started.

5. It’s not fair to hold right-wing media talking heads responsible for the things their listeners might do.

Riiight.

Advertisers will spend about $50 billion this year on TV ads, and another $15 billion on radio. That’s a lot of money. These ads take up roughly one-third of every hour of airtime—and sponsors pay up gladly, because long experience has shown that broadcast ads are a very powerful way to influence consumer behavior.

But this argument asks us to believe that what happens during the other 40 minutes per hour has absolutely no effect on anybody, ever. Got that? Ads: Powerful influences on behavior. Featured content: No influence whatsoever. Absurd.

Furthermore: conservatives have railed against Hollywood for decades, claiming that movies, TV shows, music, and videogames are a powerful corrupting influence on the country’s morals. They’ve howled even louder in recent years about Al-Jazeera’s perceived negative effect on the political discourse in the Middle East. But when it comes to their own media—no, no, nothing to see here. Nobody’s really listening to us, let alone acting on anything we might say. How could you even suggest such a thing?

As usual, they’re trying to have it both ways. The religious right came to power almost exclusively on the persuasive (and fundraising) strength of cable TV shows. The conservative grip on the country’s red counties is largely attributable to right-wing talk radio and FOX News. Obviously, conservatives strongly believe that other people’s media have tremendous power to undermine their preferred narratives; and there’s no denying that they’ve been very aggressive in using it to promote their own worldview for decades.

But now they’re turning around and insisting that nope—nobody ever did anything because some talking head told them to. And that sound you hear? Don’t worry—it’s just the head of the ad sales department quietly having a stroke because we’ve completely undermined her ability to ever sell another spot.

6. All that crazy stuff you hear on the right—you can find the left wing saying things just as bad. They’re equally culpable for how bad it all its.

False. There is no equivalency whatsoever to be drawn here.

It’s absolutely true that the commenters can get just as out of hand on liberal sites as they do on conservative ones. (And most of us who’ve been hanging around the Internets for a while have the flamethrower scars to prove it.) But the problem has nothing to do with the commenters. It has to do with the opinion leaders who are driving the conversation.

On the right, it’s actually hard to name a single major voice who hasn’t called for the outright extermination, silencing, harassment, or killing of liberals. Rush. Bill O’Reilly. Ann Coulter. Sean Hannity. Laura Ingraham. Michelle Malkin. Michael Savage. Glenn Beck. Bernard Goldberg, who has been cited by at least one assassin as the inspiration for his actions. Michael Reagan, just yesterday. This kind of eliminationist language is stock in trade on the right. A lot of them literally cannot get through the week without it.

And I’m sorry—but you just don’t hear anything like this same murderous vitriol coming from any of the major voices on the left. Kos’ commenters may engage in that, but Kos himself does not. Nor does Arianna. Ed Schultz talks tough, but he’s never called for liberals to silence conservatives. Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are flaming liberals—but they would choke on air before actually threatening anyone with bodily harm. Both of them have said repeatedly that they regard that kind of thing as a grossly irresponsible use of a media soapbox. Every reputable left-wing leader or talker wholeheartedly agrees.

Liberal-Hunting-Permit.jpgFurthermore: you don’t see Volvos and Priuses out there sporting “conservative hunting licenses,” despite the fact that “liberal hunting licenses” have been a hot item on the right for years. We’re not the ones driving the huge surge in gun purchases, either. And most importantly: You don’t see us out there shooting up fundamentalist churches, crisis pregnancy clinics, conservative gatherings, or cops. You have to go all the way back to the 1970s to find anything like that kind of overt political terrorist violence coming from the left. But starting in the 1980s, we’ve had ongoing waves of it coming out of the right—now including the nine separate violent right-wing attacks on innocent Americans since Obama was inaugurated.

I agree that it’s time to dial this down. But since it’s the right wing who gathers power by whipping up people’s fear and anger — and it’s the right wing (and only the right wing) that’s now actually taking up arms and killing people — then all I have to say is:

You first.

7. “Dial it down?” Don’t you mean that you want to use the power of government to forcibly shut up right-wing hate talkers?

False. There are a few folks in Congress who tried to gin up support for some kind of legislation—but progressives should resist this impulse, and denounce it as the shameless grandstanding that it is. We believe in the First Amendment. And if we compromise it now, we’re no better than the Bush-era conservatives who were so eager to shred the Constitution when they felt threatened. We are better than that—or should be.

Besides, we’ve already perfected a tried-and-true method that actually works. Even better: it’s grounded completely in conservative free-market philosophy; so if when the right wing starts blustering about it, we get to fire right back and call them out as hypocrites. Big fun all around…and so much more elegant than wantonly trampling on people’s civil rights.

Short and simple: we take our appeal to the advertisers. We note who the hate talkers are, what they’re saying, what date and time they said it—and then we write letters to the CEOs of the companies that sponsored those shows. Do these people speak for you? Is this the kind of media you want your product associated with? If the answer is no, what do you intend to do about it?

Note that this is not a boycott—just a call for moral accountability. Being associated with hate speech is so bad for business in so many ways that no boycott should be required. It taints the brand. It usually violates the sponsors’ own HR standards—any employee who said that stuff at the office would be canned on the spot. It’s horrible PR, especially if some enterprising blogger decides to make an issue out of it. Simply pointing that out has often been enough to convince executives that it’s a bad idea, and they need to get out before it blows up in their faces.

Don Imus lost his show this way. So did KSFO’s Melanie Morgan. (There’s even a verb for it —”spockoed”—referring to the blogger who used this technique to get Morgan and several other California hate talkers off the air.) It turns out that advertisers actually read these letters—especially when they’re getting them by the hundreds. It doesn’t take much of this before they pull back their ads; and when their major sponsors walk away, the talkers lose their shows. They may thrash a little—but usually, it’s all over in a matter of just a few weeks.

Note, too, that both TV and radio stations are already losing revenue year over year at a rate that’s starting to rival newspapers, so they’re probably even more exquisitely sensitive to this kind of pressure now than they were just a couple years ago. If we want these people off this air, this is the way to get them gone for good—and make the cultural point that this garbage is no longer acceptable on the nation’s airwaves.

8. But what you’re suggesting is censorship! You’re trying to censor free speech!

Oh, please. Anybody who argues this with a straight face shouldn’t be allowed into a voting booth until they’re sent back to eighth-grade civics for a basic refresher, because they apparently know less about the Constitution than the average immigrant who’s had to take a citizenship test.

Follow me here: “Censorship” is strictly defined as “government suppression of free speech.”

When citizens appeal directly to advertisers, that’s not censorship, because the government isn’t anywhere in the mix. It’s just the Almighty Divine Hand of the Unfettered Free Market at work, y’all. The sponsors are voting with their dollars—which, in the conservative free-market utopia, is precisely how it’s supposed to work.

9. What about that guy who shot the recruiters in Arkansas—isn’t that proof that the left wing is just as bad as the right?

False. I mean: really, really false.

Abdulhakim Mohammed’s assassination of two military recruiters was an act of Muslim terrorism, no different than 9/11 or the London subway bombings or Richard Reid and his amazing explosive sneakers. He didn’t have a pile of Thom Hartmann books in his apartment. There have been no reports that his computer bookmarks linked to FireDogLake and Crooks & Liars. Near as we can tell, Mohammed was radicalized after being held and abused in a Yemeni prison—and had absolutely no association with the American left at all.

Yes, he said that he did it because he protested the war. (I actually fielded a radio caller who insisted that his opposition to the war was de facto proof that he’s a raving liberal.) But here’s a news flash, kiddos: You don’t need to be a progressive to think the war was a bad idea. It may come as a surprise to learn that there are a lot of people in other parts of the world who also think it was a bad idea. An absolutely shocking number of them are Muslims and/or people who’ve spent time in the Middle East. Go figure.

It’s a sign of how far detached from reality the right wing is that it no longer can tell the essential difference between Muslim terrorists and garden-variety American progressives. We’re not wrong to ask: should people who are that thoroughly blinded by their prejudices be issued drivers’ licenses?

♦ ♦ ♦

This is terrorism we’re dealing with. We can’t afford to let ourselves be distracted by spin. We will not be able to respond effectively until we’re able to deal in facts. The sooner we shoot down these myths, the sooner we’ll be able dispel fear, think clearly, and start having some real, honest conversations about the actual threats we face.

Comments