by Neil H. Buchanan
This country has been downplaying and even ignoring the threat of domestic terrorism for decades. I concede that this is a step up from the previous decades of state-sponsored racist terrorism, but looking the other way while non-state actors (and all too many state actors "going rogue") do their worst to vulnerable populations amounts to little more than outsourcing what spy novelists call the "wetwork" to private contractors.
To be sure, things did become less bad after the end of the Jim Crow era. I do not have the statistics at hand, but I expect that they would show that the indiscriminate killing of nonwhites has gone down, hopefully precipitously. Even so, the fundamental point of the Black Lives Matter movement, indeed the reason for the existence of the entire panoply of civil rights groups, is that we can see with our own eyes that America in the third decade of the twenty-first century still treats non-White lives too often as disposable. What now?
The January 6 insurrection has laid open that truth more clearly than ever. That so many Republicans who backed that insurrection are now trying to say that this was actually a false flag operation led by minority agitators is evidence that people even to this day take easy refuge in the lie that minority populations are "naturally" violent.
And when White people are violent, well, they must have a good reason (or two), right? Senators Cruz and Hawley led the effort by a clear majority of congressional Republicans to overturn the election, disingenuously offering a supposedly reasonable alternative to the claim that the election was stolen: "Hey, even if it wasn't stolen, many people think it was, and their feelings deserve respect. You're just making them angry by insisting that the facts are against them."
What we know, however, is that coddling those grievances only stokes the festering anger, and as it inevitably leads to violence, it can also become indiscriminate. Bigotry and hate is generally targeted at disfavored races, ethnicities, "nasty" women, and so on. But at times, the violence spreads and takes even more lives.
There are, as a peculiar subspecies of mis-targeted violence, instances in which hate-based murders turn out to be based on misinformation, such as the incident shortly after 9/11 in Arizona, in which a man of South Asian Hindu descent was shot by a passing White man shouting anti-Muslim invective. That kind of situation creates a strange situation in which the people who are horrified by the murder do not want to say, "But he wasn't even Muslim," lest that somehow seem like a validation of the idea that it would have been better -- maybe not exactly okay, mind you, but ya know ... -- if the victim actually had been a member of the group that that particular bigot wanted to kill that day.
This situation is reminiscent of a (fortunately nonviolent) anecdote that a friend heard many years ago, told by a crusty old political operative regarding an incident from many years before that. Apparently, there was a rich Mississippi businessman who had for decades been supporting Republicans. During the 1964 presidential campaign, however, this man surprised Lyndon Johnson's state-level campaign office by offering to donate a load of cash to LBJ.
The narrator of the story was the man who was sent to meet with the potential donor. Upon arriving at the man's "plantation," the visitor said: "We were delighted, but admittedly surprised, by your call. We didn't expect that you'd be interested in supporting President Johnson." The donor responded: "Well, I certainly wasn't going to support that Jew Goldwater!" The right answer to that comment is clearly not, "Sir, Senator Goldwater is not Jewish," even though that is an accurate statement. Again, this was not a case of violence, but it does help to show how cancerous and indiscriminate hatred becomes. When things do become violent, both the targeted and un-targeted victims are robbed of their lives.
Certainly, many lives have been lost by people whom the bigots would not think of as "the other." For example, the Capitol Police officer who was bludgeoned to death last Wednesday was reportedly a Trump supporter. I suppose that one could say that he was the target, in the same sense that Vice President Pence became the target when the mob decided that he was a traitor to the racist cause of Trumpism. But what about truly innocent lives?
After law school, I clerked for Judge Robert Harlan Henry on the 10th Circuit. Judge Henry's chambers were in the federal courthouse across the street from the site of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that had been leveled by White supremacist terrorists in 1995. The memorial to the 168 victims of the bombing, who ranged in age from 3 months to 73 years old, is powerfully moving.
My clerkship began in the summer of 2002, which was less than a year after the 9/11 attacks. Even more than other government buildings around the country, then, it was understandable that security was especially tight at the OKC courthouse. What struck me on my first day, however, was not that I was stopped at the entrance to the parking garage by guards with mirrors on poles, looking for explosives under my car and requiring me to pop open my trunk. That was normal, as much as one can use that word under such circumstances.
What truly surprised me that day, however, was when I drove into the underground parking garage and followed the signs to my parking area, which is where I discovered that the courthouse and the Murrah building had shared that same parking garage. The part that had been under the bombing site was gone, but because it was underground, the breaking off point was separated by a simple chain-link fence, to block access. The mangled steal beams and rebar, and the crumbled and dangling concrete chunks were still there.
Every day for year, at least twice a day, I parked directly in front of a searing reminder of a White supremacist terrorist attack. During that year, the Bush/Cheney warmongers attacked a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks (while coddling the country that was home to the largest number of terrorists), and the people I knew in Oklahoma City said, "You know, when we were attacked by a guy from Western New York State, we didn't go to war on Niagara County." Actually, given the mis-targeted Iraq War, it would have been more apt to say that "we didn't go to war on some county near Milwaukee," because both places are on the Great Lakes.
I have, then, lived in the direct shadow of right-wing terrorism -- terrorism that killed many, many White people who probably voted Republican. It should not be necessary to see the aftermath (even this non-bloody part of the aftermath) first-hand in order to understand the horror, but that experience certainly changed me.
But McVeigh-like people can think of what others see as innocent victims in the same way that the MAGA mob thought about the Capitol Police: "If you work for them, you're now the enemy -- and so are your children." For people who claim to recoil from that kind of violence, there can be no equivocation. Yet we see supposedly non-extreme people saying: "Oh, it was only a few hundred rioters,” and "Not that many people died." Anyone who still believes that innocent people should not be harmed cannot try to justify any of this. Otherwise, we end up with more Oklahoma City-like terror.
To this day, the Oklahoma City bombing exists in the public mind not as homegrown terrorism or White supremacist violence. There was, in what I take to be the common view, just a crazy guy working with another crazy guy, and they were caught and punished for doing something horrible. Meanwhile, more and more angry White people were being radicalized, committing murders, and plotting mass attacks. Each time, our leaders have managed to convince themselves that these are isolated cases.
Trump, however, has brought all of this to the surface. He has made it immeasurably worse, but he has also made it all but impossible to mistake what is happening for something less dangerous. (I write "all but impossible" because, of course, many on the right will continue to do so.) There is no longer any excuse to pretend that this is anything but an emergency. Assuming that we can get through the next five days of non-leadership at the federal level, we must hope and demand that the government confront this mortal threat to the nation.