This week PBS premiered Oklahoma City, an illuminating documentary that revisits the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the broader climate of far-right extremism that spawned the homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
The documentary couldn’t have come at a better time.
We should all hope that President Trump and his advisers are paying close attention, because by focusing their attention exclusively on terrorism inspired by overseas groups like ISIS, they could be missing the next McVeigh.
The Oklahoma City bombing was, at the time, the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil, killing 168 men, women and children, and wounding nearly 700 more. It did not occur in a vacuum. McVeigh, a veteran of the Gulf War, was steeped in the white supremacist and antigovernment militia movements of the 1990s – movements that produced dozens of terrorist attacks and plots.
After the bombing, then Attorney General Janet Reno formed the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee to coordinate the government’s response. Numerous terror plots were foiled and militia leaders arrested. Partly as a result of the crackdown, the militia movement fell into disarray.
As fate would have it, the terrorism task force was scheduled to hold a monthly meeting on Sept. 11, 2001. It did not meet that day, for obvious reasons. But the task force did not skip just one meeting. As the country’s focus shifted to al Qaeda, the group did not meet again for 13 years.
During the interim, domestic extremism surged. The number of hate groups, mainly white supremacists, nearly doubled in a 10-year span. And with the election of Barack Obama, the antigovernment movement also roared back. From 2008 to 2012, the number of so-called “Patriot” groups, including militias, multiplied by more than 800 percent, to 1,360.
The increased activity was accompanied by an alarming level of violence, both from antigovernment extremists and racists. West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reported in 2013 that right-wing violence during the period surpassed that of the 1990s by a factor of four. The attacks included the 2012 massacre of six Sikhs at a Wisconsin temple by neo-Nazi Wade Page.
Finally, in 2014, the Justice Department revived the task force – but only after Glenn Miller, an infamous former Klan leader, killed three people he mistook for Jews in Overland Park, Kansas.
Now, it appears that Trump, who made Muslim-bashing a signature of his campaign, is once again turning the government’s attention away from the threat posed by men like McVeigh, Page, Miller, and Dylann Roof, who massacred nine African Americans in Charleston.
Indeed, it seems as if Trump is living in a world of alternative facts. The list of terrorist attacks he released to the news media this week didn’t contain a single reference to those committed by radical-right extremists. More bizarrely, while he has said nothing publicly about the Jan. 29 attack in Quebec City – where a right-wing extremist killed six Muslims at a mosque – his press secretary cited it as an example of why Trump’s Muslim ban is needed.
Last week, Reuters reported that the administration is considering changing the government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism and no longer works to counter other violent ideologies, such as white supremacism. It would be renamed as “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”
Far-right extremists cheered the news. “Donald Trump wants to remove us from undue federal scrutiny by removing ‘white supremacists’ from the definition of ‘extremism,’” wrote the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
Beyond the dangers of taking law enforcement’s focus off far-right terrorists, the decision to change the CVE program would have other harmful effects.
While it may be politically satisfying to some Trump voters, the change will further stigmatize Muslims and likely prove counterproductive. In a report last year, Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that a singular focus on Islamic terrorism erodes the trust between law enforcement and Muslim communities – trust that is needed to thwart attacks.
What’s more, by explicitly targeting Muslims in his rhetoric and policies, the president is handing a potent recruiting and propaganda tool to radical Islamists who portray the United States and the West in general as being at war with Islam.
9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of our time. And each anniversary of that horrible day reminds us of the continuing threat associated with radical forms of Islam.
But we must not forget the 168 lives lost in Oklahoma City – or those lost in Kansas, Wisconsin or Charleston.
It shouldn’t take another massacre to remind us of the very real terror threat posed by the far-right extremists living among us.