Today marks the 16th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the terrorist attack that showed Americans how domestic extremism can lead to violence on a massive scale.
On this sad anniversary, there are disturbing parallels to the years leading up to the bombing, when the antigovernment militia movement first arose. That, too, was a time of economic peril, particularly in the West, where the movement got its start. It was also a time when a Democrat was elected to the presidency, setting off a wave of antigovernment furor much like we are seeing today.
As we first reported in August 2009, the antigovernment "Patriot" movement – encompassing militias and other conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy – has come roaring back since the election of President Obama. We've now documented 824 groups in the U.S. – more than five times the 149 we found in 2008, the year Obama was elected. This movement had been dormant in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While nothing has approached the scale of Timothy McVeigh's April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building, which killed 168 people, we've seen a spate of criminal violence and conspiracies to commit violence from the radical right. In March, several members of the ironically named Alaska Peacekeepers Militia were arrested in a plot to kidnap or kill state troopers and a Fairbanks judge. That plot was reminiscent of the arrest, a year earlier, of nine members of Michigan's Hutaree militia for planning an attack on police officers that the Hutaree hoped would spark a militia war against the government. Last May, two police officers were murdered by antigovernment "sovereign citizens" in West Memphis, Ark., during a routine traffic stop.
In March, a white supremacist was arrested in the attempted bombing of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash. And in January, a neo-Nazi was arrested for a bomb plot on the Arizona border (for a detailed listing of major terrorist plots and racist rampages that have emerged from the American radical right in the years since Oklahoma City, read here).
The Patriot movement is just one part of a surge in right-wing extremism. Earlier this year, we documented 1,002 hate groups operating in the U.S., the most since we began counting them in the 1980s. In just the past decade, the number of hate groups has risen more than 40%, from 602 in 2000.
The dramatic rise in these groups is driven primarily by the changing racial demographics of the country, something symbolized by the Obama presidency. Other major factors are the anger generated by the lousy economy and the demonizing propaganda and conspiracy theories that increasingly are being injected into the mainstream culture by politicians and pundits.
McVeigh was motivated by The Turner Diaries, a racist fantasy novel written by a neo-Nazi in which nonwhites and Jews are exterminated. He had attended at least one militia meeting and shared with the Patriot movement a deep-seated hatred of the federal government. His bombing of the federal building was the worst single act of domestic terrorism in our nation's history.
Today's anniversary serves a grim reminder of the fruits of right-wing radicalism and the dangers of this growing extremism.