Janet Napolitano was right.
Five years ago, the office of the then-secretary of the Department of Homeland Security released an assessment on right-wing extremism titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”
Under key findings, the report said DHS “has no specific information that domestic right-wing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but right-wing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.”
The election of the nation’s first African-American president and the economic downturn were cited as “unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.”
Critics pounced on a footnote that defined right-wing extremism as “those groups, movements and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
Unfortunately, much of the value of the advisory was lost in a political debate over that definition and the propriety of a warning that troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were at risk of terror recruitment. Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War veteran convicted of killing 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was cited as an example. Veterans’ groups and members of Congress were angry, and Napolitano said she meant no disrespect to the military and wished the footnote had been written differently.
Sadly, the assessment was prescient.
In 2012, a white supremacist who had served in the military killed six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. In April, a white supremacist was accused of killing three people outside two Jewish facilities in Kansas. Now we have the married couple who assassinated two cops and a Wal-Mart bystander this month in Las Vegas. The two shot the officers while they were seated at a pizza parlor, and then left behind a Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag and a Nazi swastika. A police spokesman said: “We believe that they equate government and law enforcement … with Nazis. … In other words, they believe that law enforcement is the oppressor.”
Further evidence that they are the sort envisioned by the DHS report can be found in their support of Cliven Bundy. The pair traveled to Bundy’s ranch during the April standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy’s son has been quoted as saying they were asked to leave because they were “very radical.”
The triple murder in Las Vegas was reminiscent of the execution of three police officers in Pittsburgh in 2009. The DHS report said of that attack: “The alleged gunman’s reaction reportedly was influenced by his racist ideology and belief in antigovernment conspiracy theories related to gun confiscations, citizen detention camps, and a Jewish-controlled ‘one world government.’ ”
Through a spokesperson, Napolitano, now president of the University of California, declined my request for a victory lap. But one week after the release of the DHS assessment, she said something that rings true today:
“Let me be very clear: We monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.”
In the 1960s, when the threat of domestic terrorism came from the left, groups such as the Weather Underground were subject to federal investigation. Today, with similar risks coming from the far right, law enforcement would be derelict in not monitoring the activities of those who voice talk of revolution.
Partisans torpedoed consideration of the DHS assessment on right-wing extremism, notwithstanding that just three months prior, a similar warning was published by the same authors pertaining to left-wing extremists and cyberattacks.
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he was reassembling a task force on domestic terrorism that had been defunct since 9/11, when attention was necessitated elsewhere. Holder noted the need to “concern ourselves with the continued danger we face from individuals within our own borders who may be motivated by a variety of other causes, from antigovernment animus to racial prejudice.”
Holder is properly following in Napolitano’s footsteps. Anything less would be a victory for political correctness. While the PC label is usually hurled from the right, it fits anytime otherwise appropriate behavior is curtailed out of fear of contemporary reaction. With regard to political extremism, when we fail to investigate risk because of unfounded public response, we are yielding to PC forces and jeopardizing lives.
In addition to writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael Smerconish is the host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com.