Dylann Storm Roof, the gunman who attacked the Emanuel Africa Method Episcopal. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, felt he had to act. “I have no choice;” he wrote “…We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Roof is mistaken. The United States is currently experiencing a renaissance of the far right centered in the Patriot Movement. “Patriots” cobble together diverse set of ideas but are held together by the belief that the federal government is complicit in a global conspiracy to impose a socialist world government. The Patriot Movement grew from 149 groups in 2008 to 874 in 2015, an increase of nearly 500 percent.
Like most social movements, Patriots come in many forms. Militias train to defend the constitution in a coming confrontation with the federal government. Sovereign Citizens advance complex legal justifications to explain why the law doesn’t apply to them and, using a tactic labeled “paper terrorism,” resist taxes with massive court filings to burden the courts, and attack government officials with bogus property liens to attempt to destroy their credit. The Oathkeepers infiltrate the military and law enforcement, recruiting active duty personnel to resist orders that violate the constitution. These Patriot Groups join such mainstays as Neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, which is entering a fourth period of growth as it actively recruits veterans, and the John Birch Society, the ideological fount of much of American right wing radicalism that has recently had its message amplified by Glenn Beck.
Individuals associated with this movement do not simply share similar beliefs to Dylann Storm Roof. They also share his propensity for violence. In 2009, Scott Roeder, a self-described sovereign citizen, assassinated a doctor who ran an abortion clinic in Wichita, KS. In 2010, Joe Stock, a man with anti-government views, killed one person and himself when he crashed an airplane into an IRS building in Austin, TX. In 2011, four militiamen from Georgia, who were also active duty Army, were arrested and convicted for the death of another solider and his wife, whom the four suspected might report details of their plot to bomb a park and the cars of various political and judicial figures, seize control of an army base, poison crops, and assassinate Barack Obama. These three incidents are just a small sample among the over three thousand attacks and 254 deaths that Arie Perlger, a professor at the United States Military Academy, attributed to right wing extremists in the decade after 9/11. These figures contrast dramatically with 20 attacks and 50 deaths perpetrated by American Muslims the 13 years after 9/11.
It would seem that our massive anxieties over terrorism are misplaced and the threat from the extreme right is underappreciated. Indeed, several commentators and activists have argued that Roof’s attack is not a mere hate crime but must be understood as an act of terrorism. This framing holds much merit. It highlights the broader politics of that surround the incident. Roof, a white man who claimed he wanted to start a race war, attacked the oldest Africa Method Episcopal Church in the South, one that served as an organizational center of Black resistance from the Demark Vesey’s abortive slave revolt in 1822 through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movements. Whether or not Roof realized it, he executed an attack with deep historical resonance in country founded on violent racial subordination. We should not lose sight of these politics. Calling the attack terrorism may help keep these wider stakes in view.
At the same time, there are reasons to hesitate before we expand the category of terrorism. While the idea of terrorism has a long and complicated history, it is as become an empty term. Terrorism experts cannot define it. Instead, “terrorism” only holds meaning in relation to a broader set of political assumptions. It’s a “meaningless propaganda term.” The politics that define terrorism are, of course, those of advanced by the military and security apparatuses of the United States and other dominant powers. These crude power politics explain why Dylann Storm was charged with hate crime, while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, now sits on death row after being convicted on terrorism charges. Moreover, efforts to intervene in the politics of terrorism and force a consistent application of the term have failed. The Council on American-Islamic Relations couldn’t convince the FBI that Joe Stack should be labeled terrorist.
The politics that surround terrorism have also cofounded law enforcement, even as many recognize the threat from the far right. In April 2009, the DHS Office of Intelligence Analysis released a report that predicted an increase in right wing extremist activity and identified four causes: prolonged economic downturn, the election of a Black president, renewed debates over gun control and the return of military veterans to civilian life. The report was leaked to the press. Conservative commentators like Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh responded with their trademark sensationalism. The incident culminated in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano apologizing to American Foreign Legion for demonizing veterans and stopping all terrorism reporting from DHS “dealing with non-Islamic domestic extremism.”
The same dynamic is at work at the state and local level, as I saw firsthand when I conducting research as part of a larger project domestic intelligence in New York and New Jersey. At “fusion centers,” interagency intelligence clearinghouses originally set up to “connect to dots” and detect terrorism, police officers recognized the threat from the far right but blocked analysts from reporting on right wing groups. One state trooper in New Jersey’s fusion center described Sovereign Citizens as “an officer safety issue. These guys make their own licenses and think they law doesn’t apply to them. They’ll snap and shoot at officers. They’re a real concern.” At the same time, an analyst working directly under this trooper complained their in-depth reporting on Sovereign Citizens was not disseminated. “We put together a nice product to give background on Sovereign Citizens,” the analyst told me. “Cops should be familiar with their rhetoric and common behaviors but management doesn’t want to go anywhere near anything in depth like that. It’s too controversial.”
As the attacks continued, however, the police departments and intelligence services became more willing to report on right wing extremism. In June 2011, Daryl Johnson, author of the controversial report that predicted an increase in right wing extremism, brought the issue to public in a series of interviews with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Huffington Post. Although the full picture is obscured by government secrecy, sometime after Jeh Johnson replaced Napolitano as DHS secretary the office of intelligence and analysis resumed reporting on the far right. In July 2014, DHS released a report on threat of domestic extremists to law enforcement. Six months later, DHS produced an assessment of sovereign citizens that concluded that the movement would continue to be a source of “unplanned, reactive violence.” On the state and local level, this renewed willingness to report on the far right has replaced the hesitancy I observed in 2013. In 2014, the New Jersey’s fusion center released an assessments on sovereign citizens, while the fusion center in New York issued a warning about extremist violence against law enforcement.
This renewed attention on right wing movements, however, should not be a cause for celebration. The further expansion of the category of terrorism is threatening for left movements as well. The concern for civil liberties and fear of bad press can also prevent police from targeting other left wing “extremists.” At New Jersey’s fusion center, an analyst told me that their assessment of anarchists confronted the same concerns as their work on sovereign citizens: “Over last year, there was a lot of panic about Occupy. Are anarchists violent? I did an analysis that said basically, ‘calm down, there is no indication that anarchists in New Jersey are violent or are planning any violent actions. They are few in number and basically irrelevant.’ That sort of negative reporting is valuable. Every time you hear about a protest at a local university don’t activate the SWAT team and be concerned.”
The immediate supervisor for these analysts saw value in the product but also found reasons to be concerned: “The tricky part of the project was, unless they were doing something criminal and it was documented, you couldn’t really report of them and make it seem like they were being monitored or investigated… If you’re reporting that they are assembling it presumes that the assembling is illegal…We’ve seen what’s happens when you report on militias, anti-war, whatever it may be. I’m not trying to get us in the front page of Star Ledger. This is America. These people have the right to believe whatever they want.”
This anecdote should caution us against intervening in the politics of terrorism. Expanding and adding further legitimacy to the idea of “terrorism” will only make political policing more likely. There already enough examples of recent state repression of left movements—the decade long “Green Scare,” the pre-emptive arrest of eight anarchists before the 2008 Republic National Convention, the entrapment of “five stoner misfits” connected to Occupy Cleveland in an FBI-engineered “terror” plot, among many others. We need not add more legitimacy to this war on social movements.
There’s also a more difficult point to taken from the far right resurgence and the problem of terrorism. State repression is constrained by institutional contexts. It’s not the given that many self-avowed leftist often assume it to be. Over emphasizing state repression also allows us to avoid an honest assessment of our own movements. The resurgence of the right wing is also the story of the historic nadir of the left. Many of the issues animating the far right—precarious work and the debt regime, state surveillance, militarized policing—could be the mobilized toward egalitarian and liberatory ends. As Walter Benjamin remarked, “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.”
Brendan McQuade is a visiting assistant professor in international studies at DePaul University.