Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Religion | Analysis

U.S.: Museum Attack Seen as Home-Grown Terrorism

Analysis by Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 11 2009 (IPS) - Wednesday’s killing of a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by an elderly white supremacist is the latest incident in what many see as a potential new wave of right-wing violence triggered, at least in part, by the election of President Barack Obama and the economic downturn.

While it is Islamic terrorism that has dominated U.S. government and media attention in recent years, the Holocaust Museum shooting – which comes on the heels of the assassination of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller and a controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing violence – has put homegrown terrorism back on the public radar, perhaps more so than at any point since the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

The possible resurgence of far-right extremism in the U.S. – which tends to be at once anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, racist, and xenophobic – threatens to disrupt the familiar framework of what the George W. Bush administration called the “war on terror”.

Although some commentators have sought to portray the Holocaust Museum killing as related to, or even the product of, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, most experts argue that the white supremacist culture that produced the nearly 90-year-old assailant, James von Brunn, is more accurately viewed as an outgrowth of traditional right-wing militant white nationalism than of Muslim anti-Semitism.

The killings in Kansas and Washington have also raised controversy about whether more mainstream right-wing media, such as the popular radio and television talk shows of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, have helped foster the recent spate of violence.

Von Brunn was wounded and taken into custody Wednesday at the museum, less than one km from the White House, after shooting guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, who was African American. U.S. media soon began poring through von Brunn’s writings, in which he expressed hatred toward Jews and African-Americans and denied the Holocaust.

Soon after, right-wing pundits with a reputation as hardline supporters of Israel and critics of Islam began linking von Brunn’s actions to Muslim anti-Semitism.

“Make no mistake. Muslims created this atmosphere where hatred of the Jews is okay and must be ‘tolerated’ as a legitimate point of view,” wrote right-wing political commentator Debbie Schlussel. “The shooting today is just yet another manifestation emanating from that viewpoint”.

Similarly, Jennifer Laslo Mizrahi, president of the hardline pro-Israel group, The Israel Project, wrote that the anti-Semitic materials produced by a militant group linked to von Brunn “looked similar to those being used frequently in the Arab world today and in the official media of some American allies, including the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

“The words reminded me of the rhetoric of the president of Iran, who denies the Holocaust,” she concluded.

But veteran analysts of the U.S. far right generally dismissed the idea of a link between Islam and white supremacist violence.

“I’m very sceptical of the claim that the anti-Semitism of a small segment of the Muslim population spurred a white supremacist into action,” Chip Berlet, a longtime observer of right-wing groups at Boston-based Political Research Associates (PRA), told IPS. “I think that’s among the least likely motivations.”

Berlet, like others, argues that the growing radicalism of more mainstream right-wing media has contributed to the current far-right violence.

“You have demagogic right-wing pundits that point out scapegoats ranging from abortion providers, to gay people, to Muslims, to Mexican immigrants. This creates a toxic environment in which some people decide they must act, and some of those will be violent,” Berlet said.

O’Reilly, the widely-watched Fox News host, came under intense criticism following the May 31 killing of Tiller, one of the few doctors in the U.S. – and the only in Kansas – who performed late-term abortions, allegedly by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. O’Reilly had frequently denounced Tiller on his show as a “baby killer”.

In April, a DHS report on the threat of far-right terrorism was leaked to the press and provoked a media backlash from right-wing groups and Republican lawmakers who objected in particular to suggestions in the reports that military veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could be particularly susceptible to targeted recruitment by violent extremists.

DHS head Janet Napolitano initially defended the report, saying that “[W]e don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group. We must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.”

The DHS report warned that the “economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalisation and recruitment”, an assessment that is echoed by many experts.

Those experts have warned since before Obama’s inauguration that those factors could well result in an upsurge in both organisation and violence by the far right. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Centre have noted a strong uptick in internet activity by such groups and individuals and some increase in assaults on Jewish targets, in particular.

“The shooting at the Holocaust Museum is part of a wave of hate targeting Jews and Jewish institutions and others,” said ADL’s long-time director, Abraham Foxman, Thursday.

“I am more concerned with the threat from the Christian-identity groups than the home-grown Islamic terrorists,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the Washington Times. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen. The fact that (von Brunn) did what he did may be symptomatic of things to come.”

Armed supremacist or far-right groups largely faded into the background after the Oklahoma City bombing, as the federal authorities cracked down hard against them. But with the 9/11 attacks, the domestic intelligence agency shifted their focus toward Islamic groups. An internal DHS-FBI assessment of threats excluded any mention of militias, white-supremacist groups, and violent anti-abortion activists.

Von Brunn’s views of Jews and African Americans are typical of traditional U.S. white supremacists, stressed Berlet.

“They are rooted in conspiracy theories that originated with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion early in the last century,” he said. “After World War II [of which von Brunn was a veteran], when black soldiers returned to the U.S. and demanded their rights, the same groups believed that the crafty Jews were putting blacks and other people of colour into power in American society.”

“Jews and blacks in the White House – that’s threatening to someone who believes that blacks are sub-human and Jews are the children of the devil,” Jack Levin, a criminologist from Boston’s Northeastern University, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Tuesday. “The Obama effect (has) generated a backlash of white supremacy.”

Much as in Europe, where far-right candidates made unprecedented gains in the elections to the European Parliament last weekend, may also be contributing to the rise of the far right, according to experts.

Jim Cavanaugh, a 34-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and heads of the Bureau’s Nashville office, told the Washington Post in January that a combination of the internet, immigration and the economic crisis was “molten mixture for these guys. That is the furnace of hate,” he said. “As we speak, this is happening.”

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