A case of mistaken extremism

A funny thing happened to me on Monday, May 6. I sat down for lunch, turned on the TV and watched "European Journal" on the International Channel. The news program profiled a gay Dutch politician urging a moratorium on immigration until existing immigrants could be better integrated into society. It was the first I had ever heard of this unusual politician.

A while later I finished lunch, turned off the TV, went back to my computer, clicked onto my homepage and saw among the news headlines, "Dutch Politician Shot, Probably Dead." It was the same person. The assassination probably took place just as the broadcast profile of him was being aired.

Who was this Pim Fortuyn? That evening, NBC Nightly News left viewers with the impression that he was a right-wing extremist. During its news segment on the life and death of Fortuyn, the reporter used the word "extremist," or some variation thereof, no fewer than five times within the course of about two minutes.

One may or may not agree with Fortuyn's desire to reduce immigration into the Netherlands from 40,000 to 10,000 a year. But that hardly can be described as an extremist position. Does that make Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), the late congresswoman who chaired a panel in 1995 urging a sharp reduction in US immigration, an extremist? Does it make Germany's Social Democrats, who agreed to a plan in 1993 to end unconditional asylum and thereby drastically reduce immigration into Germany, extremists?

Plainly, no. Fortuyn's right-of-center positions on many other issues may have put him into the media's "extremist" camp. Along with slowing immigration, this former professor and former Marxist wanted to reduce Holland's stifling tax rate, expand the use of private services in health-care and other sectors, scale back subsidies, and even support Israel in its war on terror (a practically unheard-of stance in Europe). The fact that Fortuyn also held left-of-center positions, such as acceptance of same-sex marriages, obviously is no consolation.

The far-left wants to push the stereotype that someone holding right-leaning viewpoints must be a homophobic troglodyte. But along comes a maverick, charismatic politician who blows that stereotype out of the water. His potential to garner support from mainstream voters was enormous. In fact, that may be why he was assassinated.

And if Pim Fortuyn was an "extremist," then what do you call the person who killed him?

The dictionary defines extreme as the farthest possible point from something. It stands to reason that this would constitute someone who resorts to violence for political ends. Yet the term is misused frequently, either out of spite or out of confusion. Politicians often use the term to demagogue those they disagree with. Some in the mainstream media are prone to do the same.

And how's this for irony: they pin the word on nonviolent people, yet refrain from applying it to those who actually kill.

Has the media started to label Fortuyn's assassin a left-wing extremist? Not that I'm aware of. They seem to prefer the term "animal rights activist" or "environmental activist" to describe him. Apparently, the label extremist is only reserved for those on the right.

But as the Fortuyn assassination shows, a resurgence of leftist extremism is a definite cause for concern. Animal rights extremists may pose the worst threat. Some of them would just as soon see the world rid of humanity. We already got a taste of this in the early 1970s. A group called RISE plotted to exterminate the entire human race by dispersing various biological agents from the air. The only ones spared would be themselves in addition to animals. They later scaled down their plans to poison water supplies in the Midwest, before the FBI uncovered their plot. The two ringleaders fled to Cuba.

That was 30 years ago. Today the revival of the radical left, the ease of obtaining information that could be used for harmful purposes, and advances in lethal forms of technology suggest that new extremists are waiting in the wings. Law enforcement agencies should take note (as if they didn't already have enough to worry about). Meanwhile, the media should do its part by highlighting the threat from the left, and by applying the word "extremist" to those who really deserve the label.

Patrick Chisholm is a former managing editor at KCI Communications, a financial publishing company; and foreign affairs analyst at the State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs. He has a master's degree in international affairs/international economics from American University. He is currently the principal writer and editor at PolicyComm, a consulting firm.

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