Immediately after Timothy McVeigh was arrested for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on a beautiful April morning 10 years ago, the media were atwitter with the talk of "right-wing militias" and the threat they posed to the republic.
McVeigh, unapologetic, defiant, and awash in hatred for the government, was presented as the poster boy of the government-hating, gun-loving, right-wing nuts. And we were told ad nauseam that McVeigh was the product of conservative talk radio and irresponsible Republican politicians who talked about revolution. It was all the fault of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. (Rarely mentioned was the real motivator of McVeigh's actions: Janet Reno's attack on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. But I digress.)
What happened to the great threat from the organized and armed radical right? The so-called militias dissipated, as most of their members were regular guys who didn't want to be painted as terrorist sympathizers. There were militia members who really did want to copy McVeigh, and they slunk back into the darkness to avoid the glare of the TV lights. But they were a fraction of the militia movement, and they have remained mostly underground since, isolated by their own crackpot radicalism.
In the decade since the Oklahoma City bombing, the media have remained interested in the right-wing crazies, but have almost entirely ignored the left-wing ones -- those committing most of the terrorist acts inside the United States. Left-wing terrorist groups have been responsible for almost all of the recent domestic terrorism. The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism maintains a terrorism database. According to its files, as the Baltimore Sun reported on Sunday, fully 22 of the 25 terrorist attacks inside the United States since 2003 are believed to have been the work of environmental extremists.
This is not a recent development. Left-wing terrorists have always been the major terrorist threat in the United States. In the FBI's 1996 report on terrorism in the U.S., the bureau mentions both right-wing and left-wing terrorists, but notes: "Over the last three decades, leftist-oriented extremist groups posed the predominant domestic terrorist threat in the United States."
The report went on to state that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bureau's success in breaking up some of those groups had reduced the threat. But within five years the assessment was different. In its official terrorism report for 2000/2001, the FBI singled out environmental radicals as a major source of domestic terrorism, but did not mention right-wing groups at all.
"During the past several years, the violence and destructive activities perpetrated by animal rights and environmental extremists in the United States and elsewhere have increased in frequency and intensity," the report stated.
Separately google "left-wing terrorist" and "right-wing terrorist" and you will find a much longer list of hits for the latter, though the former is the more long-standing and persistent threat.
It is true that right-wing nuts such as Eric Rudolph, Matt Hale, and Timothy McVeigh have earned notoriety by attacking or planning to attack people instead of housing developments or Hummer dealerships. But the Unabomer attacked people. And it appears that some ecological terrorism avoided harming innocent people only by virtue of good timing.
Even as left-wing terrorism is on the rise, the media still focus on terrorists who lean to the right, or what they call the right. And the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is another opportunity for the media to discuss the threat from "right-wing" crazies. "10 years after terror, radical right still a threat," read an MSNBC headline on Monday.
The threat to democracy posed by the "radical right" is a constant theme in the press, whether those radicals be Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, abortion opponents, born-again Christians, mythical legions of "angry white men," or gun-toting survivalists.
And while some right-wing radicals are a danger, the media's fixation is letting left-wing terror groups operate largely unnoticed. If the media turned up the heat on these environmental radicals as they turned up the heat on militias after Oklahoma City, the public scrutiny might help to break their ranks just as it did with the militias 10 years ago. It would be a great public service.
Too bad it won't happen.
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