Civil rights activists say a string of recent attacks blamed on right-wing extremists, including Wednesday’s shooting at the Holocaust Museum, show that conservative critics were too quick to fault the Department of Homeland Security over an April report warning about the potential for such violence.
The report was roundly criticized by Republicans for painting conservatives as a threat—particularly military veterans and those opposed to abortion or immigration – and DHS later withdrew the report.
“I think this latest round of killing once again shows how ridiculous the criticism from the right of the Department of Homeland Security report was. That whole brouhaha was absurd,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Rush Limbaugh and John Boehner can go on until the end of time about how [the report] was an attack on conservatives, but in reality it was a perfectly sober assessment of what was going on out there.”
“We felt the DHS report was pretty right on,” said Deborah Lauter of the Anti-Defamation League. “Clearly the election of Obama, the current financial crisis, and the discussion of immigration reform –those things have certainly fueled the right wing extremist movement in this country….There are clear indications that the rhetoric is manifesting. We hope it’s not the tip of the iceberg.”
The 88-year-old man alleged to have killed a security guard and to have shot another person at the Holocaust Museum Wednesday, James von Brunn, was a hardcore white supremacist and Holocaust denier who often railed against Jews and African-Americans.
In 1981, he took a shotgun to the Federal Reserve to make what he called a citizen’s arrest over high interest rates. On his website, Von Brunn complained bitterly about being railroaded by a judicial system that included a Jewish judge and African-Americans on the jury.
The sharpest criticism of the report, titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” was focused on a part of the report asserting that “the return of military veterans…could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.”
A spokesman for Boehner, Michael Steel, said assertions that Republicans went too far in castigating the report were inappropriate to discuss in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting.
“Trying to exploit this awful tragedy to score political points – from the right or the left - is simply grotesque,” Steel said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized to the American Legion for any offense that veterans may have taken. In testimony last month before a House committee, she said that the report had been withdrawn and was inadequately vetted. “The report is no longer out there," Napolitano said, adding that it would be “replaced or redone in a much more useful and much more precise fashion."
Potok declined to fault DHS for backing away from the report, but he said the retreat was unnecessary. “I didn’t think Janet Napolitano had to offer any kind of apology,” he said.
Lauter suggested that DHS’s decision to withdraw the report was essentially political and did not necessarily undercut the department’s focus on addressing the dangers posed by some right-wing groups. “Whether [DHS] publicly decided to cool it, at least we hope that they have a commitment to take domestic extremism seriously,” she said.
In addition to the Holocaust Museum shooting, the potential for violence from the right was also highlighted on May 31, when a well-known abortion doctor, George Tiller, was gunned down at his church in Wichita, Kan. The man charged with the shooting, Scott Roeder, had some ties to the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and was affiliated in the 1990s with an anti-government group known as the “Freemen,” which claimed to be exempt from the authority of state and federal officials..
In another incident highlighted by civil rights activists, three Pittsburgh police officers were gunned down in April. The alleged shooter, Richard Poplawski, 23, reportedly told friends that he feared losing his cache of weapons to “Obama gun laws.” Poplawski, who appears to have been a regular contributor to white supremacist Web sites, also railed against Jewish control of the media and banks, friends said.
Also in April, two sheriffs deputies in northern Florida were killed in a shootout with a national guard soldier, Joshua Cartwright, as they tried to arrest him for domestic abuse. Cartwright, who was also killed in the exchange, was reportedly “severely disturbed” over Obama’s election and felt the U.S. government was conspiring against him.