Back in January of 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning (based on analysis compiled during the closing days of the Bush Administration) that right wing militia-type groups were a growing threat here in the US, noting that "the historical election of an African American president... the prospect of policy changes... and the economic downturn...are proving to be a driving force for right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization...Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States".
An FBI official told me, at the time, that law enforcement agencies were focusing more of their attention on this phenomenon. And bearing out these concerns, a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that in just the past year, these armed "patriot" militias have tripled in number - with over 130 such armed groups now known to be operating across the U.S.
It is important to recognize that the Obama election, was, in many ways, born out of the same set of circumstances. Having studied social movements that emerge in response to social dislocation and stress, I know that in periods of great anxiety, the public can be motivated in different directions. They can be inspired by hope, believing that positive change is in the offing, or, as is also the case, they can be moved to respond in fear and anger, striking out at targets identified as the cause of their distress.
Obama's messages of hope and change won the election, but, as we soon saw, did not put an end to those who preyed on discontent. Donning the robes of populism, they focused their attacks on "them" - whether the government, liberal elites, or the President, himself. Their rhetoric was vile, if not also violent. Watching the "Tea Party" movement emerge and play a disruptive role last summer shouting down and at times breaking up town meetings called to discuss health care reform, was instructive. On the one hand, the established political leaders and TV personalities who fomented this mob-like behavior were no doubt pleased as they saw this anti-government movement grow and suit their anti-reform agenda. Then again, when their offspring acted out of control, they were able to disassociate themselves from the fruits of their labor with a wink and a "tsk, tsk".
But the danger remains and the possibility of violence is real. And those in respected leadership roles need to recognize that, in the current environment, playing with matches can start fires. We've seen the ugly racist placards, heard the chants and shouted epithets, and witnessed the raw anger at rallies. Can violence be far behind?
I know this to be true and can speak from experience of the dangers of incitement. In the past decade alone, federal law enforcement officials have arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced three individuals for making violent threats against me and my family. In these threats I have been called "a rag head", a supporter of "jihad" and "Hizbollah" - all rather weird, one might say, since I am a Catholic who has consistently spoken out against all violence. Where, then, did these deranged fellows get their distorted ideas? The answer is: from a group of individual associated with right-wing "think tanks" who write "blogs" or articles that consistently defame or distort the positions of most recognized Arab American and American Muslim leaders.
And it hasn't stopped. When, for example, I was given the honor of delivering the closing remarks at the Department of Justice's commemoration the 40th anniversary of the signing of the civil rights bill, an article written by one of these characters termed it an outrage that the DOJ would invite a "Hizbollah supporter" to speak at this affair. And when the Pentagon invited me to speak at their annual Iftar, honoring the service of Muslim Americans in the US military another writer decried my presence at the event calling me an extremist "Wahhabi supporter".
Just as I feel that these writers bear responsibility for their words and for the behavior of those whom their words motivate to commit illegal acts, so too those elected officials and political leaders who rant on the floor of Congress or at mass rallies about "creeping communism", or "Obamunism", or about "death panels", etc, must own up to the atmosphere they are creating and the behavior of desperate lost souls who will use their words as a license to violence.
Given the circumstances we face, the old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" needs to be updated by adding "but may provoke others to break my bones". A warning is in order "Put away the matches". It's dangerous out there and you don't know who's listening or what they might do to act on what you say. It's time to lower the temperature and tone down the rhetoric, before it's too late.