Boston to Houston: a right to radicalize?

“As Tamerlan’s devotion to Islam became more intense and radicalized, Dzhokhar showed signs of his brother’s influence” – The Atlantic Wire, May 5, 2013

“A YouTube account apparently belonging to Tamerlan Tsarnaev gives tantalising hints of his radicalisation before the Boston bombings” – The (UK) Guardian, April 22, 2013

“Rojanksy will speak to the notion that Islamic extremists, and Chechen ties, contributed to the radicalization of the suspected bombers” – programming notes for the April 24, 2013, episode of CNN’s Piers Morgan Live [emphasis mine]

Since the horrible events in Boston, last month, it is impossible to browse a news site or watch television news without having the word thrown in your face like a water soaked towel. Guantanamo radicalizes. Middle East politics radicalizes. Islam radicalizes. The Internet radicalizes.

“I think that this is a very difficult challenge when you have individuals who are self-radicalizing, they’re not part of some massive conspiracy or a network,” President Obama told a Univision interviewer, Friday.

To that end, Newsweek’s Michael Moynihan, in a piece where he uses a pseudonym to explore extremist websites, defines “self-radicalization” as “the process by which those unconnected to organized jihad are lured toward extremism via the Web.”

If the online snuff films and photographs of dead children that Moynihan describes are part of the jihadist call to arms, then coming down from the dark cloud of the terrorist underworld can only be countered with an equally potent validation of community and belonging.

“A lot of these videos, they are very emotive,” Haris Tarin, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told PBS‘ Bob Abernethy, last week. “These sermons, they use violence and gruesome images to tug at the emotion of young people.”

But while the media is scrambling to compartmentalize “self-radicalization” as a behavior in which only a handful of sociopathic, homegrown Islamic terrorists engage, there’s one place in the American conversation where radicalization from an organized group gets only minimal attention from the press, as an existential threat. I’m speaking, of course, of the National Rifle Association.

In Houston, this past weekend, the NRA paraded speaker after speaker, who railed against Obama and gun safety advocates with the hateful energy of a radical imam. Through the exhortations of their leadership, the NRA are behaving like American jihadis. Like the terrorist who twists the Qur’an to defend their murderous ways, the anti-government, cultural isolationists of the NRA re-interpret the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights to justify arming themselves for revolution.

“I am looking at an army,” freshman Texas Senator, and Tea Party darling, Ted Cruz, told the 70,000 convention attendees, after saying he felt like Gen. George Patton, because he was speaking in front of a “ginormous American flag.”

“Stand for America. Fight for America,” former GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, put to the crowd.

Newly installed NRA president, Jim Porter, reminded the conference, “[You] here in this room are the fighters for freedom. We are the protectors.”

Wayne La Pierre reminded the audience that the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey, background check bill, two weeks ago, “is but one skirmish in what could only be described as a long war against our Constitutional rights.”

Media Matters: Nine Extreme Moments From The NRA’s 2013 Annual Meeting

The war analogy that the NRA brought to the fore in Houston may be shocking and scary to most of the ninety percent of Americans who want background checks, but it is a consistent echo on the radar of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, DHS published a nine page, unclassified study, called Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.

In it, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis cites the 2008, Supreme Court decision known as District of Columbia v. Heller, “in which the Court reaffirmed an individual’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment… but left open to debate the precise contours of that right.” The report goes on to warn:

“Because debates over constitutional rights are intense, and parties on all sides have deeply held, sincere, but vastly divergent beliefs, violent extremists may attempt to co-opt the debate and use the controversy as a radicalization tool.”

Maybe this is the line they were talking about, from La Pierre: “No matter what it takes, we will never give up or compromise our Constitutional freedom – not one single inch.”

Or this one, from Porter, at a pro gun event during last year’s presidential campaign: “I say, let me tell you something bad that [Obama]’s done. His entire administration is anti-gun, anti-freedom, anti-Second Amendment.”

Or, maybe it’s simply the theme of Houston’s gun gathering, “Stand and Fight.”

Of course, it could also be things like the Obama effigy they use for target practice.

The folks at the NRA aren’t arming themselves against some possible future tyranny. For them, the tyranny is here, now. They’re just trying to convince the rest of us that it’s time to take up arms, to protect the “culture.”

According to a Farleigh Dickinson University run poll, “44 percent of registered Republicans believed an armed rebellion could come in the next few years.”

In fact, the DHS study warns, it’s not just Second Amendment extremists who could radicalize the right. It’s also the unsteady economy, continuing high unemployment and the immigration debate.

“Over the past five years,” the 2009 report says, “various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point, and recruiting tool… DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.”

It’s a wonder, then, that the administration chose two major touchstones of right-wing extremism – guns and immigration – as the impetus to the president’s second term agenda. It could be argued, though, that this has been going on since the furor over Obamacare, which was obviously not something the DHS predicted, other than the study’s assertion that “the election of the first African American president present[s] unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.”

That alone presented a platform from which American right-wing extremists could speak. The actual issues of the day just give them political cover for their racism and xenophobia.

There is a solution, and, like the attempts to quash self-radicalization in the Muslim community, it involves providing a counter to the paranoid phantasms they hold as reality, letting them know that being an American means we are all parts of the whole, that America works peacefully, joyously and productively, when we all come together.

“[W]e… need to ensure that when we put out the counter-narrative it’s as savvy, it goes as viral and addresses the same issues,” Tarin explained, on PBS, “and that we’re not afraid to address some of the same policy grievances that they address, but to make sure that the outcome is positive and not negative.”

Mohamed Elibiary, a frequent adviser to the FBI on homegrown terror threats, seems to agree, citing the “model [of] community-based early intervention partnerships between communities and law enforcement” that has helped mitigate gang activity in major cities.

“This experience by American police provided constructive lessons on how to counter homegrown violent extremism,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on faith, last week.

“After facilitating more than 100 events of cooperation across our country between Muslim community members and the FBI in homegrown terrorism investigations, it is clear to me today that radicalization is an individual or small group phenomenon that sometimes requires a community-based solution,” he added.

In many ways, in the wake of Boston, it may be easier to overcome our absence of social and political will to engage in a compassionate understanding of the culture of our Muslim neighbors, and create a welcoming community for them, than it will be to combat American extremism. It is daunting to consider finding a way to validate the feelings of the radical right, while redirecting their passion in a more productive way.

As President Obama said, the other day, in his commencement address  to The Ohio State University:

“We’ve seen the petty divisions of color and class and creed replaced by a united urge to help each other. We’ve seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals and laws and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country that we love.

“And that’s what citizenship is. It’s at the heart of our founding — that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given talents and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities — to ourselves, and to one another, and to future generations.”



“Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.” – from Supertramp’s The Logical Song, words and music by Roger Hodgson

When I was a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the media and politicians used the “radical” brush to paint everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Abbie Hoffman, from Students for a Democratic Society to Black Panthers to White, middle-class, hippie flower children.

The New York Times, hardly considered a shill for right-wing politics, often used the term “campus radicals,” back then, in describing the violent actions taken by university students protesting the war in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon, in 1970, the day after announcing the invasion of Cambodia, told a group of Pentagon employees that the protesters were “bums” who are “blowing up the campuses.”

But it was Nixon’s strident vice president, Spiro Agnew, who held very little back in his disdain for liberals and the left. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he lambasted UC Berkley students who held three days of demonstrations after academic credit was withdrawn from a course taught by the Black Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver, he told a California fundraiser, had “nothing to teach but anarchy,” and added, “Trying to learn from such criminals was like trying to get clean by taking a bath in a sewer.”

He also said the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot was being exploited by “the radical left,” as “yet another cause celebre in the pantheon of radical, revolutionary propoganda.”

Perhaps ironically, in the 1950s, “radical” was used more often to describe the right-wing, ultra conservative John Birch Society and other staunch anti-communist groups, according to Wikipedia. Nixon himself, in his 1962 book Six Crises, warned:

“There is nothing more irresponsible than for the radicals of the right to make a racket of anti-Communism… On the other hand, it is just as irresponsible for the radicals of the left to pooh-pooh the danger of Communism at home by denying it exists, even in the face of facts like the Hiss case-thereby adding fuel to the fire of the demagogues on the right.”

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