Editor’s Note: This essay by Hatewatch Editor Mark Potok was originally posted Sunday night in The New York Times online opinion section as part of a “Room for Debate” feature that also included articles from four other contributors. The essays were meant to address the question, “Is the Threat From Hate Groups Overlooked?”
One of the most troubling aspects of the mass murder of Sikhs near Milwaukee last week is that the man who carried it out was well known to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitor the radical right. The shooter, Wade Michael Page, had long been a fixture on the white supremacist music scene and was associated with seriously violent skinhead groups like the Hammerskin Nation.
But the almost certain reality is that there was little that law enforcement officials or others could have done to foresee or forestall the racist attack. Page does not seem to have done anything to suggest that he was planning a slaughter, and his views, fully protected by the First Amendment, were no different from those of thousands of other angry white nationalists.
Still, the attack occurred in the context of a sharp rise in the number of hate groups and antigovernment “patriot” organizations, mostly spurred by the changing racial demographics of our country, which are personified in our first black president. Domestic, non-Muslim terrorism has been on the rise since Barack Obama took office in 2009. Given that reality, is there something more that law enforcement should be doing?
Under the Bush administration, the government focused heavily on Muslim terrorists, to the point that it was justly criticized for ignoring our own homegrown brand of terror. But that has changed in the last few years, with the F.B.I. issuing regular warnings about dangerous aspects of the radical right and law enforcement agencies regularly infiltrating groups that threaten violence.
But one deeply troubling problem remains. In 2009, a prescient report from the Department of Homeland Security warning of rising threats from various sectors of the extreme right was leaked. It immediately provoked a firestorm of criticism from the political right, which saw it as an attack on all conservatives. The criticism was utterly unjustified, but that didn’t prevent the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, from caving in and pulling it back in an act of craven political cowardice.
As The New York Times has reported, the Homeland Security team responsible for the report, charged with monitoring non-Islamic domestic terrorism, was essentially gutted after that, with most members leaving after enduring unjustified public criticism from their boss. Homeland Security now claims that the unit is fully functional, but the lead author of the 2009 report, Daryl Johnson — now a whistleblower — says that that’s not so.
Perhaps it’s finally time for Napolitano to take this problem seriously and rebuild and strengthen Homeland Security’s intelligence capabilities to face a clearly mounting threat. That might not have prevented the tragedy in Milwaukee, but it could very well save the lives of untold numbers of other Americans targeted by the racist right.