The color of terrorism

The man who shot innocent people in in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin yesterday was likely a white supremacist, the Southern Poverty Law Center says.

It’s a reminder that right up until September 11, 2001 in this country, the word “terrorist” and “white supremacist” were closely linked. In fact, the threat of terrorism from white supremacists in this country was often a nightly news story. Then, the planes were driven into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the popular portrayal of “terrorist” changed to a different color.

Now, it’s clear, white is back.

The threat of terrorism from white supremacists is cataloged by a number of recent alleged plots .

In April, for example, two Minnesota men with ties to white supremacist groups — 31-year-old Samuel Johnson of Austin and 42-year-old Joseph Thomas of Mendota Heights — amassed several weapons as part of a plan to attack the government, minorities and others. The FBI started investigating the two in 2010. Thomas told an undercover agent he also tried to get explosives and automatic weapons to attack “left-wing individuals.” He was allegedly planning to attack the Mexican consulate.

In May, 10 members of the American Front, a white supremacisty group were arrested for planning to kill Jews and minorities in the “inevitable” race war, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

In October 2008, law enforcement agents broke up a plot by two neo-Nazi skinheads to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and shoot or decapitate 88 black people.

Sometimes the threats succeed. In June 2009, James W. von Brunn opened fire at the National Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard.

And, of course, there’s Timothy McVeigh, who set off a bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and killed 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6.

Since 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center says, the number of right-wing extremist groups has jumped from 149 to 824.

“With the breathless way the media covers hate groups, it is sometimes easier to characterize them simply as misfits or extremists, rather than acknowledge them as part of the larger problem of widespread racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia,” civil rights advocate Loretta Ross wrote back in 1995.

Not much, apparently, has changed but the attention paid to the problem.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I was put off on the early emphasis on the Wisconsin shooter’s military service. I’m not sure how it added anything to the story, yet there it was in many headlines and ledes.

  • BJ

    @Bob Moffitt – I think it has to do with shock. As in, how can someone that defended us in the military now kill innocent people.

  • Heather

    I think it had to do with the limited amount of information about him available. It’s a verifiable fact. Would you have them hide the fact that he was formerly in the military?

  • It’s not just the US. The horrible attack in Norway was politically/racially motivated.

  • Susan

    I doubt it’s the reason for bringing up the shooter’s military background, but the SPLC has published concerns over the growth of white supremacists in the US military. See SPLC’s Intelligence Report, Summer 2006, Issue 122. It’s scary to think that our military has trained and is training future domestic terrorists.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Unless it is directly was conected to the horrible crime he commited, the suspect’s military service shouldn’t be in the headline or lede.

    If the headline had read “Lefthanded killer goes on spree” people might reasonably ask what being lefthanded has to do with the tragedy. Are they saying that being a southpaw somehow explains or clarifies this awful crime, or does the headline unfairly links millions of innocent people who happen to be lefthanded to a monsterous crime?

    Now, replace lefthanded with veteran or ex-Army. See what I mean?

    That’s what I’m saying. Sure, it’s a fact that should be reported, and in the beginning, facts are scarce. But that’s no excuse for some of the headlines and ledes I’ve seen today.

  • Bob Collins

    Similar to the AP injecting a racial identification into the Aurora shooting. Sometimes in breaking news, you’re getting everything in dribs and people pass along all the dribs without ever stepping back and placing it all into context. I suspect that’s what happened here.

    A few hours later, a good editor/reporter says… what facts do I need in this story, and you don’t need all of them, just the ones that matter.

    As a story is breaking, you don’t really know which facts matter, so a lot of folks just spew them all.

  • jon

    after reading the words “right-wing extremist groups” I had to google “Left wing extremist groups” Wikipedia of course had an article on left wing terrorists…

    More interesting is the number of search results for

    left wing terrorists vs. right wing terrorists.

  • BJ

    I heard a story/discussion on MPR that I think applies (and makes me think of the pilots that ignored warnings Bob Collins talked about a while back). The discussion was on a book “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” with the author. I don’t remember when I heard it but it was in the last week, maybe Thursday or Friday.