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Editorial: A Year of Living Dangerously

Anyone who read the newspapers last year knows that 2015 saw some horrific political violence. 

A white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Islamist radicals killed four U.S. Marines in Chattanooga, Tenn., and 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. An anti-abortion extremist shot three people to death at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But not many understand just how bad it really was.

Here are some of the lesser-known political cases that cropped up: A West Virginia man was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack a courthouse and murder first responders; a Missourian was accused of planning to murder police officers; a former Congressional candidate in Tennessee allegedly conspired to mass-murder Muslims; a New York white supremacist blew his own leg off as he built bombs; and three North Carolinians were accused in a plot to attack the military.

There’s more. A Pennsylvania man who ran a “White Church” pleaded guilty to manufacturing 20 bombs; a New Yorker allegedly collected heavy weapons to murder Jews and African Americans; three Georgia militiamen went to prison for plotting to attack utilities and start a war with the government; a West Virginia “sovereign citizen” was accused of attempting to overthrow the state government; two white supremacists in Virginia were charged with buying explosives from undercover agents in order to attack black churches and synagogues; and a racist Minnesotan was arrested for shooting five Black Lives Matter protesters.

Although the number of deaths attributable to domestic terrorism still was very small compared to, say, cancer or traffic accident deaths, such killings cause far greater social damage because they produce shock waves in targeted communities and also tend to split Americans along pre-existing fault lines like race.

The violence arose in a landscape dominated by losses for those on the political far right. Hardliners were enraged by the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage; pressure to accept Syrian refugees; President Obama’s executive orders meant to stall deportation of many undocumented workers; the attack on the Confederate battle flag that resulted from a flag-enthusiast’s mass murder in Charleston; and the demographic browning of the U.S. population.

At the same time, numerous studies have shown that the white working class in America is under increasing pressure. Real wages have been declining for years, suicide and drug overdose deaths are way up, less educated workers increasingly are finding it difficult to earn a living, and income inequality is at near historic levels. Of course, all that and more is true for most racial minorities, but the pressures on whites who have historically been more privileged is fueling real fury.

It was in this milieu that the number of groups on the radical right grew last year, according to the latest count by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The numbers of hate and of antigovernment “Patriot” groups were both up by about 14% over 2014, for a new total of 1,890 groups. While most categories of hate groups declined, there were significant increases among Klan groups, which were energized by the battle over the Confederate battle flag, and racist black separatist groups, which grew largely because of highly publicized incidents of police shootings of black men.

In the second half of the year, a new factor came into play: a presidential race that grew more ugly by the month, beginning with Donald Trump’s description of undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and culminating, arguably, with his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration. Even as more establishment Republicans held back from most criticism, Trump and other candidates increasingly injected real hate into the electoral contest.

The pace of radical activity did not slow down as the new year began. On Jan. 2, 2016, two sons of Cliven Bundy — the extremist Nevada rancher whose 2014 armed showdown with federal officials ended with the government backing down — broke into and occupied a federal wildlife refuge near Burns, Ore. Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who led some two dozen armed militiamen in the occupation, said they would remain until two local ranchers serving time for arson on federal lands were freed and federal lands were handed over to the county. Later, one of their number told reporters that the refuge would “never” be returned to the government.

At first, these kinds of assertions drew some lukewarm support in the area. But locals quickly tired of the occupiers’ antics and self-absorbed claims. In late January, The Oregonian editorialized against the “delusional behavior” of “Ammon Bundy’s gang,” saying it had “mugged democracy.” It went on to cite a Democratic congressman describing the men as “terrorists.”

It’s time for others to speak up, too. As our country grows increasingly polarized and angry, politicians, pundits, preachers and other leaders should be working to bring us together — and to battle the anger and hate that surrounds us.