Even before Wednesday’s fatal shooting of a security guard purportedly by a white supremacist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, right-wing extremists have come under increased scrutiny.
In April, the Department of Homeland Security came under fire for a report that warned of disgruntled war veterans getting involved with radical right-wing groups, and in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League reported an increase in racist skinhead groups. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center indicated a 54 percent increase in so-called “hate groups” from 2000 to 2008.
The opinions of several experts contacted by The Washington Times on Wednesday differed when it came to questions about whether membership in such groups are increasing. But all agreed they present a serious threat.
“I am more concerned with the threat from the Christian-identity groups than the homegrown Islamic terrorists,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen. The fact that this guy did what he did may be symptomatic of things to come.”
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Ms. Haberfeld, who teaches a counterterrorism class for New York police officers, said she worries that local law enforcement agencies do not keep close enough tabs on such groups and that the Internet allows them to put forth an extreme rhetoric that advocates violence.
Carol Swain, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of “The New White Nationalism in America,” said that such writings on the Internet can help inspire a so-called “lone wolf,” who is not formally involved with any group, to carry out violent acts.
She said there are conditions in the nation that can lead to an increase in white supremacists, including decreasing white population, increased immigration, fear of minority crime and loss of jobs.
Ken Piernick, a retired FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases, said recent acts of violence by right-wing extremists, such as the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller, comes after a years-long lull in similar cases, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
“I would expect based on their sentiments that [President] Obama’s election would probably contribute to a bit of that,” he said. “These people are not rational; they don’t think of the consequences of what they do. They’re not particularly smart people.”
Mr. Piernick said that while others may share in the ideology of right-wing extremism, acts similar to the museum shooting are rare because most people have a natural revulsion to violence.
“I can imagine all of sudden [authorities] are going to start paying attention to right-wing extremists again,” he said.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who worked cases against white supremacists and now works at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that authorities focus too broadly when monitoring such groups. He said authorities too often incorrectly focus on what members of groups think instead of what they have done.
Mr. German said that many people may share the ideology of the suspect in the museum shooting case - 88-year-old James W. von Brunn - but it was the suspect’s history of violence that was the best indicator of Wednesday’s attack.
“I think if you look at the amount of violence, over the years white supremacist and other extremists have been involved in violence for decades,” he said. “I think we have to be careful in focusing on the conduct and not on the ideologies.”