Saturday, October 18, 2014

Richard Cohen: Secret Service failures are cause for concern after numerous extremist plots

  With its recent bumbling, the long-respected U.S. Secret Service is beginning to look like the Keystone Kops. But there’s nothing funny about the agency’s security lapses, particularly for the nation’s first black president, a man who is the target of enormous rage on America’s radical right.

  For those of us who monitor racist and anti-government extremists, it’s not surprising that, as The Washington Post reported, President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors.

  After all, ever since he arrived on the scene as a serious presidential contender, he has been portrayed by even “mainstream” commentators and politicians on the right as nothing less than an existential threat to America – a Manchurian candidate who sympathizes with terrorists, a Marxist intent on installing a totalitarian government.

  Some of the Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have engaged in the demonization of Obama as “the other.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, has said Obama exhibits “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” And former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu has said he wished Obama “would learn how to be an American.”

  Nothing in his political record remotely supports the characterization of Obama as anything but a mainstream politician, of course, but the purveyors of extremist propaganda have found a robust market for it on the country’s reactionary right, including fringe elements of the Tea Party. To this segment of the American public, Obama is more than a left-of-center president. He symbolizes the changing face of America, the growing diversity that will result in non-Hispanic whites losing their majority status around the year 2043 – and with it, perhaps, white hegemony.

  This is why we have seen, as illustrated by the persistent claims about the provenance of Obama’s birth certificate, a stubborn refusal among many on the right to accept his legitimacy as president. And it’s why we’ve seen the emergence of eliminationist rhetoric, such as when angry opponents shouted “Kill him!” at a political rally in 2008 and when effigies of Obama appeared hanging from nooses on university campuses that year.

  Obama’s election also ignited volcanic growth in radical-right groups, particularly within the “Patriot” movement. This collection of armed militias and similar organizations is animated by the belief that the U.S. government is an illegitimate, evil entity and part of a global conspiracy to institute martial law and a socialistic government called the “New World Order.” In 1995, it  led to the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil, the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

  In 2008, the year Obama was elected, there were 149 “Patriot” groups. Today, there are nearly 1,100.

  At the same time, numerous studies have documented a significant increase in right-wing domestic terrorist attacks in recent years. These include the 2012 slaughter of six Sikh worshipers at a temple in Wisconsin by a neo-Nazi who apparently believed he was killing Muslims.

  Obama has been the target of numerous radical-right plots.

  In August 2008, even before he left the Democratic National Convention that nominated him, three white supremacists were arrested with high-powered rifles, disguises and a bulletproof vest as they discussed ways to kill Obama.

  Then, just before the election, two members of a racist skinhead group were arrested in Tennessee in a plot to assassinate the Democratic nominee after killing more than 100 people, mostly at an African-American school.

  A month after Obama’s inauguration, a U.S. Marine corporal was indicted for threatening to kill the president after a search of his barracks in North Carolina turned up white supremacist materials and a journal containing his plans.

  Two years later, a neo-Nazi in Spokane, Wash., was indicted on terrorism charges in a plot to kill Obama. “Take care of business,” he said in a conversation recorded by the FBI. “Got to stop Barry Soetoro [Obama] from being re-elected. Absolutely.”

  Sadly, there is no shortage of American extremists who wish the president harm. And, as we’ve seen through decades of studying the radical right, many of them are willing to spill blood for their cause. That’s why the Secret Service’s recent failings are no laughing matter. And that’s why political leaders should tone down their rhetoric.    

  About the author: Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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