The landscape of America is littered with bodies.
Total body count for these incidents: 19 dead, 26 wounded.
Not much, you might say, when taken in the context of about 30,000 gun-related deaths annually nationwide. As it happens, though, these murders over the past couple of years have some common threads. All involved white gunmen with ties to racist or right-wing groups or who harbored deep suspicions of “the government.” Many involved the killing of police officers.
In Pittsburgh, three police officers were shot and killed, while two were wounded in an April 2009 gun battle with Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist fearful that President Obama planned to curtail his gun rights. In Okaloosa County, Florida, two officers were slain in April 2009 in an altercation with Joshua Cartwright, whose abused wife told the police that her husband “believed that the U.S. Government was conspiring against him” and that he was “severely disturbed that Barack Obama had been elected President.”
At the Pentagon, an anti-government conspiracy theorist, John Patrick Bedell, wounded two police officers in March of last year before being shot to death. At the Holocaust Museum in 2009, James W. Von Brunn, a white supremacist, gunned down a security guard before being wounded and subdued by two other security guards.
Government officials, of course, have also been targets of the gunmen, as demonstrated so vividly by the recent shootings in Tucson, where Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others were wounded, and one of Giffords’s staff members and a federal judge were among the six dead.
Churches Are No Sanctuary from Christian Extremists
Two of these shootings took place within the sanctuary of churches. In Wichita in 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder. Tiller was serving as an usher during a Sunday morning service at Reformation Lutheran Church when he was shot. The attack in Knoxville, which left two dead and six injured in July 2008, occurred at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church while 25 children were performing Annie Jr. Killer Jim David Adkisson said he hated Democrats and deemed the church part of the “liberal movement.” Adkisson opened fire with a shotgun on an audience of about 200. In Brockton, Massachusetts, in January 2009, neo-Nazi Keith Luke sought to storm a synagogue, but never made it, authorities claim. According to a prosecutor, Luke wanted to “kill as many Jews, blacks, and Hispanics as humanly possible.” In his rampage, he reportedly murdered two Hispanics and raped and wounded a third before, near the synagogue, he was wrestled to the ground by ordinary citizens.
Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — initially attributed by numerous media experts to Arab terrorists but actually the work of right-wing militia-movement supporter Timothy McVeigh — more than 25 law-enforcement officers have been killed by white supremacists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Extremist Wreckage Pockmarks the American Landscape
Beyond the shootings — and those enumerated above are only a sample of such incidents since 2008 — there is a landscape of rubble and carnage. In February 2010, Joseph Stack, infuriated by the IRS and U.S. tax policy, crashed his small plane into an Austin office building housing 200 IRS workers, killing himself and two others and injuring 13. Violence, he wrote in a “manifesto,” is “the only answer” to oppressive government policies.
Sometimes the wreckage left behind from such incidents is easily overlooked, a roadside crash on a springtime day. In Nashville last March, a motorist was so enraged by an Obama bumper sticker that he rammed his SUV into the offending car, pushing it off the road and onto the sidewalk, leaving a man and his 10-year-old daughter terrified inside.
Sometimes the incidents reveal deep emotional wounds. Just before Christmas in 2008, in Belfast, Maine, an abused wife shot and killed her husband, James Cummings, a wealthy California native and Nazi devotee. Loathing Barack Obama, he was planning to join the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement at the time he was shot. Police and federal agents subsequently found radioactive materials and instructions for the making of a “dirty bomb” in his house, according to an FBI document released by WikiLeaks.
An FBI official said the materials could all be purchased legally in the United States. The police offered assurances that the public was not at risk. Amber Cummings, the abused wife who believed her husband had sexual designs on their nine-year-old daughter, was sentenced to eight years in prison for the shooting, but the judge suspended the sentence.
Sometimes the carnage is vast and events are still playing out. A bomb lab discovered in an Escondido, California, house in November proved so immense that authorities feared removing the explosives. Instead, they closed nearby Interstate 15 and set the property ablaze, sending a towering black cone of smoke skyward and filling the air with the hiss of burning chemicals and the crack-crack of exploding ammunition.
Police are still investigating the supposed architect of this explosive realm, an unemployed Serbian immigrant. As with the apparent plans to build a dirty bomb in Maine, the authorities have not yet declared these efforts in California to be associated with terrorism or possible construction of weapons of mass destruction. WikiLeaks, on the other hand, which released the FBI field report on the Maine incident, has since been termed a terrorist organization by a number of federal lawmakers and officials for bringing classified documents to public attention.
White Men Are Never Labeled Terrorists
That leads to a common thread among these murderous incidents. None has been labeled the work of terrorists by authorities or the media. All involved white men, most of whom — like Jared Loughner in Tucson — have been deemed troubled or disturbed by authorities and various media outlets. Even Jim David Adkisson, the unemployed truck driver who attacked the Knoxville church because he believed it was “a cult” and a haven for Democrats and secular liberals, has not been characterized as a political terrorist. Adkisson was a fan of the writings and shows of right-wing media personalities Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity, according to authorities who searched his residence after the 2008 shootings. However, his primary motivation, according to those same authorities, was the imminent loss of food stamps and inability to find a job.
Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into the Austin IRS building in an eerie echo of the 9/11 attacks, is also not a terrorist — just a plain old suicide. The Maine dirty-bomb maker, who amassed quantities of hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide, and magnesium ribbon, a terrorist? No, just a “disturbed individual.”
Arizona, of course, has seen a lot of extremist political activity in recent years. In fact, even as Jared Loughner was gunning down 20 people inside the Safeway on North Oracle Road on January 8th, the murder trial of Shawna Forde, head of the anti-immigrant Minutemen American Defense group, was getting underway in nearby Pima County Superior Court. Forde and two associates have been charged with the shooting death of a man, the wounding of his wife, and the killing of the couple’s nine-year-old daughter during a June 2009 robbery aimed at funding her extremist political activities.
These are America’s killing fields, coast to coast, yet the commentary and debate in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting revolves around political rhetoric in Washington. Both sides need to tone it down, we’re told. There have been endless discussions on television and radio, newspaper commentary and Internet postings all focused on the issue of overheated political talk — as if Jared Loughner somehow leaped full-grown from the forehead of Glenn Beck.
Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck did not send Jared Loughner out to kill, even if their extreme lock-and-load rhetoric — Beck, brandishing a baseball bat, has warned his viewers to watch out during the next “killing spree” — has helped legitimate such talk. What they have certainly done is help create an inspirational environment where it is perfectly normal for Tea Party extremists to attend political rallies while packing pistols. Indeed, packing pistols is the point, isn’t it?
That said, conservative columnist David Brooks, in an astonishingly superficial argument, wrote in the New York Times that those who drag politics into public debate over the killing of political figures and government officials are leveling “vicious charges” and lack empathy for the mentally ill. Brooks gravely wagged his finger at those — he singled out MSNBC commentator Keith Olberman, former Senator Gary Hart, and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas — who have argued that violent rhetoric from the Tea Party and Sarah Palin set the table for the Tucson shootings. (Of course Congresswoman Giffords herself chastised Palin for putting her district in the now-infamous gun-sight crosshairs. Does Brooks include her, too, in excoriating “vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness”?)
How sugary is Brooks’ argument? Compare it to what he wrote following the shooting rampage that took place at Fort Hood in November 2009. In that murderous incident, Major Nidal Malik Hasan was ultimately charged with killing 13 and wounding over 30. Hasan, a Muslim psychiatrist, was clearly disturbed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (he was about to be deployed to the latter) and his deteriorating mental state had been a concern to officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
That was before Hasan snapped. Despite documented psychiatric worries, the issue of terrorism quickly dominated public discussion of Hasan’s act.
At the time, Brooks derided talk of Hasan’s mental state and characterized those who brought it up as casting “a shroud of political correctness” over the Hasan “narrative.”
“The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality,” Brooks intoned. “It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.”
So much for “vicious charges” and empathy. They are apparently reserved for young white males in Tucson; Muslims need not apply.
Meanwhile, the bodies are piling up in Arizona and Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania. The Homeland Security Department issued a lonely cautionary report in 2009 on the rising tide of right-wing extremism; it was loudly hooted down by right-wing radio celebrities like Rush Limbaugh and Internet pundits like Michelle Malkin. The killings and the attacks went on.
Now, we have arrived at another Martin Luther King Day, the birthday of a man gunned down by a right-wing extremist more than 40 years ago and, while we talk endlessly about rhetoric, we have done a remarkable job of ignoring the growing pile of bodies. The murderous right wing is still with us. The racists and the skinheads and the neo-Nazis are still here. Sales of Glock semi-automatic guns are skyrocketing in the wake of Tucson. The growing piles of bodies is real evidence of growing extremist activity. What could be plainer or starker?
Congressman Peter King, the New York Republican who now heads the House Homeland Security Committee, is planning to hold hearings on Muslim radicalization in America when the new Congress convenes. Muslims, he said in the wake of the Tucson killings, are recruited by “foreign” terrorists, while Loughner is just a “deranged” American, the latest in a long line of deranged Americans.
What place is this? Where are we now?
[Note on sources: The FBI field report on dirty bomber James Cummings can be found in .pdf file format by clicking here. The Homeland Security Department report on rising right-wing extremism can be found in .pdf format by clicking here.]
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland.
Copyright 2011 Stephan Salisbury
This article was originally published on TomDispatch.com.