The benefits of hindsight
Aug 15th 2012, 21:01 by J.F. | ATLANTA
ON APRIL 7th 2009 a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) charged with monitoring domestic, non-Islamic terrorism released a paper warning that the economic downturn and the election of the first black president “present unique drivers for right-wing radicalisation and recruitment.” Other causes included fears over illegal immigration and the possibility of more restrictive gun laws, and the challenges faced by returning military veterans. It compared the economic and political climate of 2009 to that of the early 1990s, “when right-wing extremism experienced a resurgence fuelled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs and the perceived threat to U.S. power”; that period culminated in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled veteran who found a home in America’s right-wing fringe movements.
The report, released just as the “tea-party” movement was heating up, came under withering criticism from the right. Commentators complained that it unfairly placed conservatives under suspicion. John Boehner, the House Speaker, said it cast veterans as “potential terrorists”. Daryl Johnson, who headed the unit responsible for that report, said that DHS promptly caved in to the pressure. Within months his unit, which had six-full time analysts and two supplemental staff—fewer by far than the team that monitored Islamic threats—was gutted, “out of malice and risk aversion”, Mr Johnson maintains, and out of fear of politically motivated budget cuts. Training and publications were cut too.
Nor is this imbalance limited to the DHS: since coming under Republican control in 2010, the House Homeland Security Committee has held five hearings on Muslim radicalisation, and none on right-wing threats. Yet America’s right-wing extremists commit a vastly greater number of murderous attacks (though leading to fewer deaths) than Muslims do. According to the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB), published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, between 1990 and 2010 right-wing extremists carried out 145 murderous attacks, resulting in 348 deaths, 168 of which resulted from the Oklahoma City bombing. During that same time period Muslim extremists committed around 25 attacks, which killed over 3,000 people; but 9/11 accounted for 2,977 of these.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which monitors right-wing extremists, saw the number of such groups wane during the 2000s, before soaring back following the election of Barack Obama and the economic downturn, as Mr Johnson predicted: by the end of 2011 it counted 1,274 anti-government “Patriot” groups, far more than existed in the mid-1990s and up from a nadir of 131 just four years earlier.
Following the murder of six Sikhs at a gurdwara in Wisconsin by a white supremacist earlier this month, there have been calls to redress this balance. That would be welcome, but may well prove easier said than done. For one thing, law-enforcement agencies must take extreme care (far more than they have, historically) to distinguish between constitutionally-protected speech and actionable threats. For another, politicians will have to brave the blowback, distortions and pressure that, as Mr Johnson and his team can attest, will inevitably come from discussing the links between right-wing extremism and subjects such as gun laws, unemployment, military service and the election of Mr Obama. Bringing up such subjects will be difficult. Keeping silent would be worse.