A series of attacks by rightwing extremists has raised fears of a
new wave of violence triggered by the economic crisis and the election
of the country's first black president.
Since the inauguration of
Barack Obama this year a series of shootings have taken place, with
targets ranging from an abortion clinic to a liberal church and police
officers. The attacks have often been fuelled by a potent mix of race
hate and conspiracy theories.
Last week's shooting by neo-Nazi
James von Brunn of a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum in
Washington DC, a few blocks from the White House, was the most recent
incident. Now many experts are worried that extremists will eventually
take aim at Obama himself.
"There is now a worry that Obama is
going to be a target. It is a really serious situation. It is simply
because of the colour of his skin," said Heidi Beirich, director of
research at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which closely monitors
hate groups in the United States.
In papers left in Von Brunn's car after last week's shooting,
investigators have already found anti-Obama statements. Von Brunn wrote
in a note: "The Holocaust was a lie. Obama was created by Jews." Von
Brunn, who shot dead Stephen Johns before being shot himself, is in
hospital and has been charged with murder.
The shooting has sent
shock waves through the US, but in fact it is the tip of an iceberg of
incidents over the past year involving far-right gunmen or those
inspired by conspiracy theories and inflamed by conservative media
Two weeks ago Kansas-based abortion doctor George
Tiller was gunned down in a church by an anti-abortion campaigner. In
April, Joshua Cartwright shot dead two policemen in Florida after a
domestic disturbance. Police interviews established that he was
"severely disturbed" that Obama had been elected. In North Carolina a
former marine is facing charges after police investigating an armed
robbery found a private journal containing a plan to kill Obama and
white supremacist material.
In January, the day after Obama was
inaugurated, a white man in Brockton, Massachusetts, went on a gun
spree that killed two blacks. He also had links to white supremacist
groups. That followed another shooting spree last summer in which an
unemployed truck driver in Tennessee shot two people dead at a church.
The gunman, Jim Adkisson, left a note saying he was targeting the
church because of its liberal and gay-friendly outlook.
But perhaps the most disturbing recent incident involving the far right
happened in December 2008, when police investigated the murder of James
Cummings in Maine. Searching his house, they discovered literature on
how to build a dirty bomb and many ingredients that could have been
used to make such a weapon. Cummings, who collected Nazi memorabilia,
had amassed four barrels of radioactive material.
that the upsurge in rightwing shootings mirrors the 1990s, when militia
groups sprang up across the US, often believing anti-government
conspiracy theories. The election of Obama and the sheer scale of the
economic crisis have now provided a huge boost to a movement that had
appeared to decline markedly over the past decade.
moment Obama became a serious candidate, you have seen a serious
up-tick in activities and online chatter from these people... there is
a push from extremists that 'we have got to do something'," said
Professor Jim Corcoran, an expert on America's far right at Simmons
College, Boston, and author of two books on the subject.
serious has the problem become that the Department of Homeland Security
(DHS) issued a report warning about the problem in April. Though the
report was greeted with howls of protest by conservatives, its central
thesis of an upsurge in far-right extremist violence seems to have come
"The DHS report was not crying wolf. It was spot on,"
said Corcoran. The report said the economic downturn and Obama's
election represented "unique drivers" for rightwing groups. It warned
that "rightwing extremism is likely to grow in strength" and added that
new technologies, especially the internet, made "it much more difficult
for law enforcement to deter, prevent or pre-empt a violent extremist
Another factor driving the rise in extremist attacks has
been statements by some conservative politicians and media
commentators, especially on the Fox News Channel and talk radio. Some
of Fox News's most popular talking heads regularly accuse Obama of
being a socialist or a communist who is a threat to American democracy.
O'Reilly, who hosts a nightly show on Fox, regularly called the shot
abortion doctor Tiller a baby murderer and nicknamed him "Tiller the
killer". Glenn Beck, one of Fox's most well-known TV presenters, has
even aired patently false rumours that Obama is building "concentration
camps" for Republican supporters. "If you have any fear that we might
be heading toward a totalitarian state, look out. There is something
happening in our country and it ain't good," he said on one broadcast.
comments echo those of Republican congresswoman Michele Bachman, who
has said that Obama is planning to set up "re-education" camps for
young people where they would be trained in political correctness. Such
outrageous sentiments, carried on a mainstream news channel, are
potentially dangerous and could incite people to kill, some experts
say. "It is dangerous. They are just promoting conspiracy theories in
what is supposed to be the mainstream media," said Beirich.
popular conspiracy theory is that Obama plans a crackdown on gun laws
in America. The subject is a popular one among conservatives, despite
the absence of evidence. It has led to widespread ammunition shortages
across the country as gun supporters hoard bullets. The problem has
become so bad that some police departments have even had to ration
their ammunition supplies. It can also have a deadly impact. In April
in Pittsburgh Richard Poplawski shot and killed three police officers
he believed might be trying to take away his weapons. Poplawski, a
white supremacist, had come to believe that Obama was planning a
crackdown on gun ownership.