When a Department of Homeland Security report in April predicted a rise in white supremacist violence by white men who feel increasingly marginalized and powerless, Republican leaders were up in arms. The report, they said, was a slur on the U.S. military because it explored the possibility that white supremacist violence might arise from the ranks of Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans, as it did from Gulf War veterans, such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tried to stand her ground and then did a modified backtrack.
She didn’t need to do so. The report was an attempt by Homeland Security analysts to do what they are paid to do—try to predict the source and location of terrorism in the homeland, so that law enforcement can prevent violent attacks. For Republicans, the report was just another political opportunity to try to rally their base around a non-existent insult to our military. It was transparent, but sickening. Because when the violence goes down, as it did this week in the lobby of the Holocaust Museum, it’s innocent men, women and children who get hurt.
The gunman, John von Brunn, was a well-known white supremacist, with his very own Web site and delusions of grandeur. His repellent views and puffed-up bio were apparently well-regarded in white supremacist blog circles. The fact that he is 88 years old only makes the tragedy more heinous. Don’t racists ever get tired? Von Brunn has now become the poster child for why elderly violent white supremacists should be prosecuted—whether it’s Bobby Frank Cherry, who at 72 was tried and convicted for his role in the Birmingham church bombing that murdered four black girls, or 89-year-old John Demjanjuk, the accused Nazi prison guard who was deported from his home in Ohio just last month to stand trial in Germany on 29,000 counts of accessory and murder for his alleged role as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland during WWII.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that white supremacist violence was likely to increase during Obama’s presidency. Remember the uptick in violence during the Clinton administration? Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph the Olympic bomber, the proliferation of so-called “freedmen” in Montana, the shootout at Ruby Ridge. And this was all under our first fake black president.
Violence is what these individuals resort to when they feel powerless and marginalized. The election of President Obama represents a seismic shift in the sensibilities of many Americans. It will take some getting used to for many, to see a black man stride across the lawn of the White House and board Air Force One. Others will seethe each time they see the president with a sense of displacement and fear. Those who are already unhinged may take action as von Brunn did this week.
Rather than tamp down their most inflammatory rhetoric, far-right exhorters on the television and radio airwaves see Obama’s presidency as an opportunity. Some of them aren’t even ideologues. They just know that speaking from the extreme right boosts ratings and makes them more money. They are perhaps even worse than the true believers. Which is why the hate machine of the far right needs to be taken to task—those who insist on insinuating that President Obama is a socialist, is not really American, is a friend of Islamic terrorists, those who encourage listeners to stockpile their money in their homes before the “one world” government nationalizes all the banks. For hours on end on talk radio, they stir up those who live on the fringes of society, with the foulest kind of slurs and insinuation. Then when something violent happens, they step back and suggest that their hands are clean.
The Republican Party has an African-American chairman, Michael Steele, who likes to “keep it real” and explain “how he rolls.” It’s time for Steele to “drop some knowledge” on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly and state unequivocally that their rhetoric is not that of the Republican Party he represents. That’s not to say that the Republican Party should not assert its obligation to vigorously oppose the Democratic President’s policies. But that opposition should be conducted responsibly.
Steven Tyrone Johns, the 39-year-old black security guard at the Holocaust Museum, is dead. The museum, a commemorative space that serves as a powerful monument to the hideous extremes of white supremacy, has been besmirched by this violent act. Responsible leaders on the right should stop inciting vile individuals to unleash their frustration on innocent people. And mainstream media figures and politicians should, at every opportunity, condemn language by these extremists that contributes to an atmosphere of hate and violence.
More importantly, the Department of Homeland Security must stand firm in its mandate to protect the homeland. We need unapologetically vigorous and aggressive law enforcement action against violent hate.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.