Center for American Progress

Right-Wing Extremists Aren’t the Lone Wolves They Seem to Be

Right-Wing Extremists Aren’t the Lone Wolves They Seem to Be

The rise in right-wing extremist and white-supremacist attacks suggests that these radicals are part of larger movements that are gaining support, a trend that we must pay attention to as our country becomes more diverse.

People walk around a flag pole memorial outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the site of a hate-fueled, violent attack that left six members of the Sikh community dead. (AP/ Jeffrey Phelps)
People walk around a flag pole memorial outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the site of a hate-fueled, violent attack that left six members of the Sikh community dead. (AP/ Jeffrey Phelps)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow  on hate crimes and domestic extremism. This hearing will hopefully provide not only a closer look at the growing number of hate crimes that occur in this country each year but also at the astounding expansion of hate groups that indicate a pattern of right-wing radicalization at the heart of such tragedies.

A diverse group of more than 150 organizations, led by the Sikh Coalition, requested this hearing in the aftermath of a violent attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August. Media outlets covering the attack were quick to label the shooting as the actions of a “lone wolf.” Tragedies of this kind, however, are growing in number, rendering this loner analogy less and less accurate.

Tagging violent, right-wing extremists with this label, though, is anything but unusual. It happened when a Norwegian far-right extremist bombed federal buildings in Oslo and carried out a mass shooting at a youth political camp in 2011. It happened after an antiabortion extremist murdered Dr. George Tiller in 2009, and also when an antigovernment extremist bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The list goes on.

The Department of Homeland Security even released a report in 2009 warning that the threat posed by such “lone wolves” was more pronounced than in past years. But it’s more and more the case that these wolves run in packs.

We often use the lone wolf metaphor to make ourselves feel better about seemingly random acts of violence and hatred. Nature’s lone wolves separate from their pack, become aggressive defending themselves without the support of a pack, and often are unsuccessful in hunting prey alone. If the human perpetrators of violence are painted as socially isolated outcasts who have trouble relating to others, then their actions are interpreted as atypical and repeat occurrences are not to be feared.

To be clear, there certainly are incidents that seem to stand alone and that deserve the lone wolf marker, such as the recent shooting at the Family Research Council’s office in Washington, D.C. In this case the shooter disagreed with the organization’s political agenda and horrifically chose violence to express his disapproval. While the Family Research Council argues that the shooting was prompted by the Southern Poverty Law Center listing the council as a hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center responds that it has listed the council as a hate group since 2010 for spreading false and denigrating propaganda about gay and transgender people. The center did not encourage any acts of violence.

Thus, while this sort of violence cannot and should not be condoned, the shooter in the Family Research Council attack was clearly acting on his own and seems to have been incited to action by facts about the council’s hateful agenda. As misguided as the gunman’s actions were, this incident cannot be equated with the examples of far-right extremism mentioned above.

Indeed, the lone wolf portrayal of far-right extremism ignores the fact that these alleged loners on the right are actually embedded in networks that do preach violence. While there is no evidence to date of networks that would encourage the type of violence carried out at the Family Research Council this past month, far-right attackers are almost inevitably found to be linked to hate groups—groups which have been on the rise in recent years, partly because of our country’s changing racial and ethnic demographics. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a staggering 70 percent rise in such groups since 2000 alone.

Far too often these demographic changes trigger anxiety, a sense of dislocation, and anger, which in turn can lead to violence and hate crimes. Instead of recognizing this, though, the media often pretends that violent attackers act alone without any networks or support. As such, it ignores a deeper, more widespread problem that is growing throughout the nation.

These loners have friends

A closer, post-violence look into the behavior of these extremists nearly always reveals that they were anything but alone in their ideology. The Norwegian attacker was inspired by right-wing Islamophobic ideologues in the United States. The antiabortion extremist had several close, long-term relationships with other extremists advocating violent attacks on abortion providers. The antigovernment radical in Oklahoma had at least one co-conspirator in his attack, maybe more. What is interesting—and terrifying—is that regardless of the different agendas between xenophobia, abortion rights, and anarchy, all of these individuals had ties to white supremacists, who claim that diversity is a curse undermining the superiority of white people.

The Sikh temple shooter in Wisconsin followed in the same footsteps—he was a member of the underground, white-power music scene and affiliated with the white supremacist group Hammerskin Nation. Far from being a loner, he played in various white-power bands, whose lyrics promoted race wars and hatred, and may have even been involved in organizing a concert in Richmond, Virginia, this past spring that would have brought together many similar, white-power bands. In fact, according to Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League—an organization fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry, and extremism—such hate music is intended to “create a group sense, praising or glorifying skinheads or white supremacists like themselves.”

Expressions of hate are not limited to public events or in-person interactions. The Internet allows the transmission of white-supremacist and other intolerant ideologies to millions across the globe, readily available to anyone at the click of a button. The ease of access to such vengeful ideologies—even though many of us chose to rise above this hatred—can spread these beliefs like wildfire, making them more common and, unfortunately, less shocking to some.

Mainstream hatred

The fact that groups promoting violence are on the rise should be alarming, given that our country is becoming more diverse as each year passes. But this increase should not surprise us: What all of these hate-inspired individuals share is an anxiety about a perceived threat. It could be a threat to their national identity, racial superiority, masculinity, or any number of other points of pride. We can’t be surprised that this anxiety is growing, given the societal megaphones that broadcast such ominous ideas and instill fear into the hearts of audiences nationwide.

Take Pat Buchanan, for example. This prominent conservative news commentator has written a book that claims diversity will be the death of America. Leaving aside his penchant for historical misinformation, his book rabble-rouses the worst elements in our society. In one chapter, he introduces statistics of demographic change with a tone of impending doom, saying that:

The white population will begin to shrink and, should present birth rates persist, slowly disappear. Hispanics already comprise 42 percent of New Mexico’s population, 37 percent of California’s, 38 percent of Texas’s, and over half the population of Arizona under the age of twenty … Mexico is moving north … Has our passivity in the face of this invasion imperiled our union?

Some politicians also incite such fears and encourage this kind of anxiety. Just this past week, Tea Party-backed Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) publicly commented that Muslims in this country posed a severe threat to the nation. The broader conservative political strategy of race baiting and fear mongering to distract the public from honest discussions about class inequality has even made its way into presidential and congressional elections. Individuals running for office are open about their hatred and incitement to violence: At a political fundraiser in August, Ohio Republican congressional candidate Samuel Wurzelbacher (more commonly known as “Joe the Plumber” in the 2008 presidential campaign) said that the government should “put a damn fence on the border going to Mexico and start shooting.”

The Oak Creek tragedy has now unveiled that on top of some media commentators and politicians, the dark underbelly of a certain music industry also promotes such hatred among its ranks and preys on the anxiety of its audiences. While the record label that distributed albums by the shooter has removed all of his products from their site and released a statement trying to distance itself from the attack on the Sikh temple, its actions since the shooting would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic. The label claims it has worked hard over the years to promote a positive path in peoples’ lives and denounces such violence. Yet when some of the only decipherable lyrics in the shooter’s music are “Sieg Heil”—a well-known Nazi salute—how can the label claim, in all seriousness, that it doesn’t promote racial and ethnic cleansing?

If social outcasts are now in the business of hearing their views in prominent media outlets, represented by national politicians, and promoted by profitable elements of the music industry, then those who still believe these individuals are loners must subscribe to a completely ungrounded sense of reality.

Growing anxiety is a serious problem

In light of the rise of such hateful groups; the easy networking enabled by the Internet; and the fear mongering of some conservative commentators, politicians, and musicians, the government must take this pattern of violence seriously. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Department of Homeland Security caved to conservative political pressures in 2009 and withdrew a report that exposed the surge in domestic right-wing radicalism. In the wake of the Oak Creek shooting, however, an important debate was resumed—namely, if we know that white-supremacist elements are serious threats, why are counterterrorism efforts almost exclusively devoted to threats that originate either abroad or within domestic, nonwhite populations? This conversation must be continued as these right-wing attackers continue to gain traction so we can work together to address the very real threat posed by domestic extremism.

As our country rapidly approaches the day when there will no longer be a clear racial or ethnic majority, we should be vigilant about growing anxieties among groups in our country, about those in the fear-mongering business, and about violent extremism. We must not wait for violence to erupt but must act early, doing our part to prevent anxiety and perceived threats from spreading. We must reinforce to these more-susceptible populations how diversity has always been this country’s greatest asset and will remain as such as we move forward together into our multicultural future.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

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Julie Ajinkya

Policy Analyst

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