Political extremism: Not so easy to categorize

Both sides in the political debate have tried to label the IRS suicide pilot and the Pentagon shooter. But the truth here is way beyond such facile political analysis.

Pete Erickson/The Bulletin/AP
Carlene Herburger, of Mount Vernon, Ore., holds a sign as she joins a group of local residents to protest the planned purchase of a building to house the future Aryan Nations headquarters in John Day, Ore. on Friday, Feb. 26.

Over the years, extremist groups have come and gone, some in bursts of violence, some falling under the weight of an ideology that is patently ridiculous to all but a few true believers.

The Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity adherents, skinheads and neo-Nazis, state and local “militias” and “freemen” here and there. It’s hard to pin them down along today’s conservative-liberal political spectrum. Like many in today’s “tea party” movement, they are nonpartisan. Or maybe “post-partisan” in a way President Obama never intended.

The man who flew his Piper aircraft into an IRS office building in Texas last month and the man who calmly walked up to the Pentagon entrance the other day and began firing his 9mm handgun at police officers are both dead now. They can’t be questioned; what they believed and what led them to act can be gleaned only from the things they had written, posting their screeds online.

That has not stopped the politically-minded from attributing blame to the “other side.” If IRS attacker Joseph Andrew Stack was against taxes, then he must be a tea party fellow traveler, right? Pentagon shooter John Patrick Bedell was an anti-Bush registered Democrat who believed 9/11 was planned and carried out by the US government, so he must be left-wing, right?

The truth here is way beyond such facile political analysis.

“We’ve always had individuals who strike out at the giant ‘system’ when they’re feeling a sense of powerlessness and insignificance,” Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University and author of “Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred,” told the Washington Post. “Now we see an alarming tendency in which these same individuals can find substantiation online for almost any point of view.”

But aside from the hyperventilated rhetoric, has there been an increase in politically-rooted violent extremism?

Yes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which has been tracking (and successfully suing) groups like the Klan and Aryan Nations for years.

“Hate groups stayed at record levels – almost 1,000 – despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America,” SPLC reported recently. “Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called ‘Patriot’ groups – militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose ‘one-world government’ on liberty-loving Americans – came roaring back after years out of the limelight.”

Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., has been tracking extremism for nearly 30 years. Today, he reports “one of the most significant right-wing populist rebellions in United States history.”

“We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people [who are] angry, resentful, and full of anxiety,” he writes. “They are raging against the machinery of the federal bureaucracy and liberal government programs and policies including healthcare, reform of immigration and labor laws, abortion, and gay marriage.”

This is the context in which the suicidal pilot in Texas and the Pentagon shooter need to be seen, though they don’t fit neatly. Because nothing in this realm is easily categorized.

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