Discounting right-wing domestic political violence
On the morning of January 17 in Spokane, Washington, city workers found a backpack with a bomb that was set to go off along the route of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. An FBI official (Spokane Spokesman Review, 1/19/11) called the bomb “a viable device that was very lethal and had the potential to inflict multiple casualties.” Another official told the Associated Press (1/19/11), “They haven’t seen anything like this in this country…. This was the worst device, and most intentional device, I’ve ever seen.”
On March 9, Kevin Harpham, a white supremacist with past links to the neo-Nazi National Alliance, was arrested and charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and possessing an improvised explosive device. The device contained shrapnel dipped in rat poison, which can enhance bleeding (Hate Watch blog, 3/10/11), and was set on a park bench where its impact would be directed toward marchers.
The Spokane bomb plot received sparse coverage compared to that lavished on a far less dangerous plot attempted in Manhattan’s Times Square just a few months earlier. On May 1, 2010, a poorly made bomb incorporating Fourth of July firecrackers and nonexplosive fertilizer (Washington Post, 5/4/10) was allegedly set by Muslim-American Faisal Shahzad, who was reportedly outraged by civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes (New York Times, 6/23/10). The device smoked, drawing the attention of a man who alerted police, but failed to go off.
However, network news shows considered the Times Square dud 14 times more newsworthy than the far more sophisticated Spokane bomb. According to the Nexis news media database, in the 10 weeks following the respective acts of terrorism, the Times Square story received 49 mentions on network evening news programs to the Spokane story’s three. (ABC World News didn’t mention the Spokane bomb a single time.)
Likewise, as Salon blogger Justin Elliott pointed out (2/19/11), the very real Spokane bomb plot received one-third the coverage given a November 2010 FBI sting operation in Portland, Oregon, that used a fake bomb, provided by an undercover agent, to ensnare a Somali-born Muslim teenager. On the scant coverage of the Spokane story, Elliot concluded, “The incident does not fit into the reigning narrative of Muslim terrorism.”
That narrative is fundamental to understanding the skewed coverage of domestic terrorism. For instance, on the eve of congressional hearings on domestic Muslim extremism, chaired by Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.), a Wall Street Journal editorial (3/11/11) attempted to justify the bigoted proceedings by misrepresenting a RAND Corporation study as finding that Muslims are responsible for virtually all U.S. domestic terrorism. What the 2010 RAND study actually found (FAIR Blog, 3/16/11) was that the vast majority of “homegrown” terrorist attackers—those of all ideologies who successfully carry out an attack—were not Muslims: Of the “83 terrorist attacks in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2009, only three…were clearly connected with the jihadist cause.”
Running his own interference for King’s hearings, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 3/8/11) responded to domestic terrorism expert Mark Potok’s statement that “our biggest domestic terror threat…pretty clearly comes from the radical right in this country,” by exclaiming: “Are you kidding me? The radical right? The last terror act assigned to them was the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.”
To make his claim, O’Reilly had to overlook many right-wing domestic terrorist attacks that have happened since Oklahoma City, including two that appear to have been partly inspired by his Fox News colleague Glenn Beck, and one in which O’Reilly himself has been accused of whipping up hatred. (See sidebar.)
In reality, there have been dozens of violent domestic attacks perpetrated by right-wing extremists in the U.S. in recent years. On the Crooks and Liars blog (1/21/11), right-watcher David Neiwert keeps a running list of domestic terror attacks by rightist and anti-government extremists. Since August 2008 alone, Niewert’s list includes two dozen such attacks.
The post-9/11 demonization of Muslims recalls an earlier political era: The post-war Red Scare period of U.S. politics, which featured countless charges of Communist subversion. Some were even true. But during the same period, extremist groups on the right, many of whom embraced racist and fascist violence, received little scrutiny by elites intent on keeping U.S. eyes focused on the Cold War.
Scrutiny of right-wing extremists would have been self-defeating, as red-hunters were often in bed with the far right. From its founding in 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee was shot through with racist, anti-Semitic and fascist-sympathizing members. Its first chair, Rep. Martin Dies (D.-Texas), hobnobbed with avowed fascists and Nazis like German American Bund chief Fritz Kuhn (Frank Donner, The Un-Americans), while leading member Rep. John Rankin (D.-Miss.) explained HUAC’s refusal to investigate the Ku Klux Klan: “After all, the KKK is an old American institution” (Michael Newton, The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi).
The links between today’s anti-Muslim witchhunters and the violent far right are more ideological than personal. But the pundits and politicians currently hyping a domestic “Muslim Scare” narrative and ignoring right-wing violence are, like their red-baiting predecessors, maligning and jeopardizing the lives of millions of people, and leaving the public misinformed about the real dangers they face.
FOX & Domestic Terrorists: Singing the Same Tune
In July 2010, Byron Williams opened fire on two California Highway Patrol officers when they stopped him, as he later told police, while he was on his way to kill people at the Oakland offices of the progressive Tides Foundation and the ACLU. Byron cited as an inspiration Glenn Beck, whom journalist John Hamilton (Media Matters, 10/11/10) pointed out had aired anti-Tides commentaries on 29 separate episodes of his Fox News show.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that Pittsburgh’s Richard Poplawski—who was arrested after a shootout with police that left three officers dead—was so inspired by Beck’s anti-government conspiracy theories he posted to a neo-Nazi website a recording of Beck suggesting the government was building concentration camps for dissidents (FAIR Blog, 11/10/10).
Prior to anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder’s May 2009 murder of women’s health provider Dr. George Tiller, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and his guests had demonized Tiller in 28 separate episodes of his show, dubbing Tiller a “killer” and accusing him of “Nazi stuff” (Salon.com, 5/31/09).
Jim Adkisson, who shot and killed two people and wounded seven others at a progressive Tennessee church in 2008, wrote a “manifesto” (FAIR Blog, 3/11/10) explaining that he “wanted to kill…every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg’s book [100 People Who Are Screwing Up America]”. These days, Goldberg is best known for his regular appearances on the O’Reilly Factor.