It didn’t take long for tax-protesting suicide bomber Joseph Stack to attract a following. Shortly after he slammed his private airplane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 18, white supremacists began hailing him as a hero who stood up to a tyrannical federal government.
“This was quite heroic,” wrote someone on Stormfront.org, a neo-Nazi Web forum with 141,000 registered users. “There is a gradual awakening under way. I wonder how racially conscious he was.”
On the neo-Nazi Web site Vanguard News Network, another hatemonger wrote: “Only bad I see about this is that he didn’t kill enough.”
Of course, we expect this type of reaction from the kind of extremists who wear white robes or Nazi uniforms. But what we don’t expect is for supposedly mainstream political leaders to give aid and comfort to domestic terrorists and their sympathizers.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa told the crowd of conservative activists and politicians that he could “empathize” with the man who killed an IRS employee and injured 13 other people. He later told the political blog Think Progress that the IRS is “unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.”
Were it to come true, King’s wish would be good news for the person on Stormfront who asked, in the wake of the IRS attack, “Are there ANY innocent IRS employees???”
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, who was elected to fill the Massachusetts seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, suggested that the attack might have been the product of the public’s frustration with political gridlock. “I don’t know if it’s related, but I can just sense, not only in my election but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated,” Brown told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto.
People are frustrated with their government. Millions have lost jobs. Retirement accounts have been decimated by two major economic shocks over the past decade. Health care costs are skyrocketing, and banks that were bailed out yesterday are paying their executives giant bonuses today. While the middle class and poor are hurting, the wealthy elite seem to be doing just fine.
But violence is not the answer to Washington gridlock, and all our leaders of whatever political persuasion should unequivocally condemn Stack’s murderous last act and any other threats of violence.
The problem is not that the inability of a polarized Congress to solve our problems is fueling a populist rage. The public has good reasons to be angry. It’s that this anger is being successfully exploited by those on the radical right and channeled into the sort of antigovernment fear and extremism that led Stack to fly his plane into an IRS building.
The fury is reflected in the stunning growth of extremist groups over the past year. Hate groups remained at record levels despite the collapse of a major neo-Nazi network. At the same time, radical anti-immigrant groups rose by nearly 80 percent. But the most dramatic surge came in the anti-government “Patriot” movement, which includes militia groups. These groups harbor a deep-seated, irrational fear of federal authority and believe the government is their enemy. Many think the government is planning to round up political dissenters and put them in concentration camps.
Overall, these three strands of the radical right – the hatemongers, the nativist extremists and the Patriot groups – increased their numbers by more than 40 percent from 2008 to 2009, rising from 1,248 groups to 1,753.
What makes these increases even more alarming is the degree to which the ideas of the radical right are being so casually accepted in mainstream politics and political punditry. We now have politicians and media figures on the hard right who are, day in and day out, legitimizing and validating the most bizarre conspiracy theories, beliefs and racism of the lunatic fringe, further stoking fear and hatred.
There’s been a long and bloody history of terror attacks by the radical right. We’ve documented 75 plots, conspiracies and rampages since the Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people in 1995, at the height of the 1990s militia movement. Most of these plots, including five previous plans to attack the IRS, involved individuals with extreme antigovernment views.
In the rambling manifesto left behind by Stack, he described his anger against the government and said, “Nothing changes unless there is a body count.” Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, probably thought so, too.
As long as we have political leaders and radio personalities who empathize with or explain away the murderous acts of people who blow up or fly planes into buildings, we’re likely to see more bodies.
Richard Cohen is president of the non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.