Denial of Alt-Right Extremism Led to Charlottesville Tragedy

Sep 02

An abbreviated version appeared in the Florida Times UnionSeptember 2, 2017

A few months ago, I asked a former state legislator, why he failed to cite far-right terrorism as a national security challenge during his panel discussion regarding immigration and refugees. He asked me to cite one evidence of far-right terrorism in America. Oklahoma City. That’s just one, he claimed. What about Charleston? He insisted that in America the norm was “Islamic terrorism.” He is not alone with such blind spots.

Mayor Lenny Curry was among a handful of city mayors in full throated support of President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. Our local congressional representatives, John Rutherford and Ron DeSantis, also gave unquestioned support to this order. Partisan support for such bans notwithstanding, refugees nor citizens from the countries on the banned list have killed anyone in any act of terror in America.

In Charlottesville, a white supremacist used ISIS inspired methods to mow down anti-racist protestors, killing one and injuring 19. The dangers from such homegrown terrorists, who are now emboldened to gather in large numbers holding Nazi flags in one hand while clutching their semi-automatic guns with the other, have generally been downplayed. Charlottesville is the bitter fruit of scapegoating those who are perceived as the “other” while ignoring the dangers of extremism from “our own.”

Through my service on FBI’s local civil rights task force, I learnt that law enforcement agencies are vigilant about the dual threats posed by right-wing militants and self-radicalized Muslims. According to one count, from Sept. 12, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2016, violent extremism in the US has claimed 225 lives, 47 percent from far-right extremists and the remaining from radical Islamic extremists. To the detriment of our national security, many of our political leaders, focus exclusively on threats from Muslims, while ignoring the threat from the far-right, euphemistically labeled the Alt-Right.

In February 2016, Newsweek ran a story with the headline, “Right-Wing Extremists are a Bigger Threat to America than ISIS,” which noted, “Multiple confidential sources notified the FBI last year that militia members have been conducting surveillance on Muslim schools, community centers and mosques in nine states for what one informant described as ‘operational purposes.’ …The FBI also learned that right-wing extremists have created bogus law enforcement and diplomatic identifications, not because these radicals want to pretend to be police and ambassadors, but because they believe they hold those positions in a government they have created within the United States.” In Charlottesville, many of the white supremacists were better armed than the police. They came in full battle gear, intending harm. Some reports indicate that a white supremacist shot at the police and yet the police “never moved.” Imagine if they were Blacks or Muslims. Would they have returned home to peacefully sleep in their beds while the rest of the nation lies restlessly awake?

Earlier this year, Arie Perliger, Director of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell issued a chilling warning, “Despite an uptick in far-right violence …., the White House wants to cut spending for programs that fight non-Muslim domestic terrorism. … This approach is bound to weaken the authorities’ power to monitor far-right groups, undercutting public safety. How many more innocent people like …. have to die before the U.S. government starts taking the threat posed by violent white supremacists more seriously?”

Trump’s statements blaming first “many sides” and then “both sides” for Charlottesville while asserting that there are “very fine people” among those carrying swastika flags, has deepened our racial and religious divides. With that wound still gaping, Trump has gone on to pardon the controversial Sheriff Arpaio, who was convicted of racially profiling Latinos. Not too long ago, Trump’s White House harbored Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, mouthpieces for the Alt-Right. Evangelical leaders who pound their fists at “radical Islamic terrorism” are suddenly at a loss of word after Charlottesville. In addition, a new poll shows that 1 in 5 Trump voters think there were indeed “very fine people” among white supremacists.

What is radicalizing young white men? Look no further than the words and actions of our leaders, many of whom have lost the moral authority to claim such a mantle.