Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: The rising risk of far-right violence

Mar 30, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news. Read his column The Hutaree militia and the rising risk of far-right violence in which Gene writes: "For decades now, the most serious threat of domestic terrorism has come from the growing ranks of paranoid, anti-government hate groups that draw their inspiration, vocabulary and anger from the far right.

"It is disingenuous for mainstream purveyors of incendiary far-right rhetoric to dismiss groups such as the Hutaree by saying that there are "crazies on both sides." This simply is not true."

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our weekly encounter. Since last we spoke, the last t has been crossed and the last i has been dotted on health care reform. President Obama has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. And terrorism has returned, in the form of subway bombs in Moscow and "militia" loonies in Michigan who plotted to assassinate police officers. Today's column was about the threat of political violence from the far right. Lots to talk about, so let's get started.

Remember that Homeland Security Report that warned of right wing extremism? You know, the one that the Republicans went crazy over and demeanded that Napolitano apologize for. Well, the Hutaree arrests are what that report was referring to. Your column today, Gene, is spot on.

Right-wing extremism may be on rise, report says (CNN, April 14, 2009)


Thanks. Federal authorities have been saying for years -- including under the Bush administration -- that far-right militia groups are a real threat.

To claim that political violence exclusively or mainly originates on the right requires record breaking levels of either cognitive dissonance or dishonesty. Did you miss yesterday's arrest of a Democratic donor who planned to kill Eric Cantor and his family? The death threats against Sarah Palin and her family? Did you fail to notice the left wing terrorists who threw cinder blocks and sandbags from overpasses at GOP convention buses? What is the political affiliation of the rioters who disrupt every G20 and IMF meeting? Where were you when SEIU thugs put Kenneth Gladney, an African American Tea Party attendee, in the hospital? I missed your condemnation of movies, plays and books fantasizing about the assassination of President Bush, and your reaction when the authors were treated to fawning NPR interviews. Your attempt to delegitimize opposition to radical left wing policies by smearing opponents as violent racists is despicable and a threat to the fundamental principles of democracy.

Next time, tell us what you really think. Seriously, I'm not being dishonest and my congnition is not dissonant, as far as I can tell. All those things you cite should be condemned -- the ones that actually happened, at least. But come on. There simply are not dozens of left-wing militia groups running around in the woods with automatic weapons, training to wage war against the United States government. That's the province of the far right. Does the name Timothy McVeigh ring a bell?

Do you think the election of Barack Obama has contributed to the rise in prominence and activity of right-wing extremist groups?

Yes. The phenomenon really ballooned after the Waco incident, then declined somewhat, and now is again on the rise. I do think its rebound is at least partly because of Obama's election, and I think it is aided by the far-right rhetoric from commentators -- and elected officials -- who hae done their best to delegitimize his presidency.

So Tea Partiers call members of congress racial epithets, which is totally wrong in my book. Yet, it seems like Democrats fanned the flames about that and other threats. When a man shoots through Eric Cantor's office window, which is also totally wrong in my book, he goes to law enforcement and doesn't go yelling to the media. In fact, we didn't even know about it nationally until he pointed out that threats happen on both sides and used that as an example after so much yelling in the media by Democrats. It seems to me that Cantor's reaction is better because it does us no good to fan the flames of the crazies on the right or the left. I'm all for taking a stand for what is right, but if you fan the flames, won't it make the crazies even more crazy?

Richmond police say the bullet that went through the window of Eric Cantor's campaign office was the result of a stray shot, and that it was already spent when it made impact. That said, it is a sad fact of life that many people in the public eye receive threats from time to time, and quite often the right way to handle them is to do it quietly. The incident with Democratic members of Congress and the Tea Partiers happened in broad daylight, on the Capitol Grounds, in front of thousands of people. By definition, that's public.

Mr. Robinson, why don't you put Muslim/Islamic in quotes when you talk about those terrorists? Or do you feel their actions are within the doctrines of Islam? Do you have any comment on why the WP News side has yet to use the word terrorism in any article referring to the Michigan militia plans?

Those are good questions. I was making a rhetorical point by putting Christian in quotes, but no, I don't believe the actions of Muslim terrorists are within the doctrines of Islam. In my opinion, the word terrorism is the right way to describe what the Hutaree militia members were planning.

I am the last person to play the race card (being a white woman), but I--and my friends for that matter--simply cannot think of another reason why this is all coming to a head NOW. If they are SO concerned about the deficit, where were they during the Bush Administration when it was waging two wars and giving tax cuts? If they are SO concerned about taking away their rights, where were they when the Bush Administration blatantly took away their right to privacy with the unwarranted wire taps? Seriously...

Seriously, indeed. I'l planning to do a column soon about the role that I think race plays in all this.

I am always concerned about people dismissing actions by citing an example that this is sort of a ping-pong match, one side, the other side, and therefore let's dismiss it. A person can go to the Southern Poverty Law Site and get an accurate account and rundown of the recent rise in militia and hate groups, almost all of them fueled by anti-government sentiments, and fanned by the talk show bloviators, not to mention some members of Congress. If you wish to hear some rampant anti-government nonsense, check out the local American Family Radio network station where most of the day they have talk show hosts, of whom the most egregious is Bryan Fischer, an Idaho rabble rouser, who is anti numerous things-Muslims, pro-choice people, Democrats, Obama, the IRS and who knows what else. But the recent threat on Eric Cantor, unfortunately now our Representative, is not something new, is it? Haven't Congresspersons and other high officials, including of course the President, occasionally had death threats that had to be investigated? Does one threat to Cantor equate to the Michigan Hutarees and the other similar groups?

The threats against Cantor and his family were vile and criminal, and I hope the suspect -- if he's guilty -- is punished. A crazy, anti-Semitic wacko can do terrible things. That said, I don't think that's the same thing as heavily armed militia groups training for war against the state.

Re the RNC's spending at that lesbian-bondage nightclub in West Hollywood: dealbreaker for Michael Steele or mere tempest in a teapot? Do you think Republicans are less-inclined to dismiss Steele because he's Black, and they don't want to be accused of racism (even though it'd be a bogus claim)? Someone once commented that a true sign of having gotten over bigotry is when a member of a protected class can be fired and no one thinks it's due to prejudice.

I just had to interrupt this sober seminar to take a question about the RNC's expenditure of $1,946 at a sado-masochistic-themed nightclub called Voyeur West Hollywood. First, it's obvious that Steele is succeeding in his vow to whip the party into shape. Second, the line entry in the Federal Elections Commission report says the expediture was for "meals" at the club. Does anybody know what's so special about the cuisine? Semi-seriously, this gives impetus to the dump-Steele faction within the party, but I think he's still safe. Many of the state party chairman like him, since he's gone out of his way to cultivate their favor, and I think he'll be around at least through the November election.

Gene, I'd like your reaction to something. I've been watching, listening and reading as much as I can find about the Tea Party movement, because I can't figure out the media's treatment of them. I know they've kicked up a lot of political dust, but whenever I see/hear them interviewed, they seem to spout a lot of rhetoric without factual basis or consistency. The press seem to give them a pass because the TPs are just regular Joes, not professional politicians or pundits, so their rhetoric isn't really challenged. Can you shed any light on why the press goes easy on a group of people with whom it is clearly fascinated? Can we expect a more informed view of this movement? Thanks.

In my paper and in others, I've read plenty of long, thoughtful, sober analysis of the Tea Party movement. I think you're looking for a logic and consistency that isn't there. The anger and frustration that fuels the movement is real, and it's easy to understand why people are angry and frustrated. But if you're looking for a party platform or something, you're not going to find it.

Thanks for the Q & A Mr. Robinson, I'm a big fan of your appearances on MSNBC and your columns here on the Washington Post website. Here's my statement and question. I'm a legal immigrant who had to wait 10 years before getting approved for the green card and another 5-6 years for US Citizenship, which I dearly cherish. And hence I do understand the criticism of amnesty, which almost all Republicans are against. However, I don't think its realistic to arrest and deport 12-15 million undocumented people who are here illegally. It's a massive waste of taxpayer money with very little upside at a time when we are absolutely broke. So my question is... why aren't more Republicans flexible on some pathway to citizenship for the people who fall into this category? The plan that Obama mentioned during his campaign is extremely extensive and by no means easy for the undocumented workers. It involves learning English, paying a fine, and getting at the back of an absurdly long legal immigration line, among other things. The Republicans can help shape the bill if they're involved in the debate as opposed to being seen as obstructionists by the largest growing minority community in the nation.

I don't get the Republican Party's position on immigration reform -- not on any level. I think that on the merits, your position is the right one. And politically, polls show that this issue is extremely important to Latino voters. If Republicans drive a wedge between themseles and the nation's largest minority, it will be hard for them to win national elections. Period.

The prime rib at Voyeur West Hollywood is to die for. Of course we go there for the food. That's our story, and we're sticking to it.

And we were so preoccupied with the extensive wine list that we hardly noticed the naked, writing... oh, never mind.

Any notion how many Hutaree-type groups are out there? Do most of them have web presences that can be tracked? Is there anything that average citizens can do to identify and report them to authorities? And above all, how can the ones who pose the greatest threat be distinguished from mere frothers?

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League are among the organizations that keep track of these militia groups, as (thankfully) do the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

You're missing the point about the real undercurrrent of dissatisfaction in this country. It has more to do with a government that's out of control and obviously run by the rich for the rich, illegal immigrants who come here to take our jobs and game the system, and the fact that the middle class is steadily being turned into serfs and far less to do with the President's skin color.

Fair enough. But then why wouldn't the disaffected be in favor of higher taxes for the rich, more support for the middle class and rationalization of our immigration and border policy?

But it is not easy to understand why teapeople are so willing to belive the strangest things without question. I heard people interviewed on NPR saying "the health bill says when you may and may not have kids." (a) NOT TRUE, (b) was she advocating for reproductive choice? Another woman said "NO one knows whats in the bill because NO ONE has read the whole thing." Did she miss 4th grade civics class? IT scares me how WILLINGLY ignorant they are. The militia and the vandalism in Virginia prove that ignorant and angry are a dangerous mix.

Dangerous indeed.

I think the GOP and its enablers have imbibed the belief that this is a center right country and so if anyone on the center left is elected, it was by cheating or some other kind of chicanery. For a party that did get into power in 2000 by irregular means (Supreme Court), they really have shown anger that the country rejected them and elected Democrats to House, Senate, and Presidency over last 3 cycles. Like so many who cling to beliefs in face of facts that counteract those beliefs, the GOP is not likely to lose the anger any time soon. Not sure it's all because Obama is black, more it's because they told us Obama was the most liberal liberal of all time and we still elected him.

I do think it's time to stop relitigating Bush v. Gore, but oherwise I think you make a lot of good points. My pet peeve is this "center-right country" nonsense. By definition, the political center of gravity isn't center-right or center-left, it's center-center. The center of gravity is smack in the middle. The thing is, it moves -- back in Richard Nixon's day, we believed in wage and price controls; during the Reagan era, we believed in deregulation; now, we think that a little regulation might be a good thing. But as the center moves, those center-left and center-right points on the spectrum move as well. To try to characterize the country as leaning one way or another -- from a midpoint that moves -- is nonsense.

I am a small business, white Jewish woman, who listens regularly to Morning Joe. Your opinion article was discussed this morning and Pat Buchanan basically did what you suggested in your article. In short, that violent rhetoric is coming from both the left and right. I am 100% in agreement with you. I feel that all this hostility is veiled in government takeover, but really is racism. I was brought up by two Holocaust survivors who embraced this country. They taught me to judge everyone for the acts they do and not the color of their skin, the religion they embrace or who they love. I, in turn, proudly raised my children in the same way. I apologize to you for what is happening now. I think you know what this is truly about. Thank you for speaking out. I enjoy your column and you are one of the reasons I watch Morning Joe.

Thanks, but you don't owe me an apology. I'm fortunate to have these platforms to tell people what's on my mind.


And with that, folks, my time is up. See you again next week!


In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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