Like many of you, I have been soaking up all the information I can about the two recent domestic terrorist attacks: the murder of George Tiller, in which Scott Roeder has been charged, and the attack on the Holocaust Museum, in which James von Brunn was charged today.
Part of my search to understand what is happening has taken me to some real wacky Web sites. Though von Brunn’s has been taken down, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has a screen shot of it here. Trying to make sense of the acts of these crazy men is a frightening exercise.
Except they’re not actually crazy, which is even scarier.
To be fair, I don’t have any psychological reports of the mental health of either man. But after talking to Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Public Research Associates (a progressive think tank), I’m convinced that the labels of “crazy white supremacist” and “psycho anti-abortionist” are far too simplistic.
Berlet told me he’d seen no evidence that these two men, or even Timothy McVeigh for that matter, are crazy. Instead, they’re “acting out on beliefs.”
And people who share these beliefs, if not the violent impulses, are doing everything they can to disassociate themselves. Right-wing Christian sites are bending over backward to extrapolate leftist tendencies from von Brunn’s anti-Christian ravings.
Berlet managed to conjure a laugh when I asked him about the right-wing blogs that were raising von Brunn’s anti-Christian writings as proof of religious peoples’ lack of culpability in the recent violence. He said that they’re just “trying to point the finger at someone else” when some of them deserve to be called out for polarizing hate speech.
“This is just deception,” Berlet said. “The right wing is trying to build a bulwark against the obvious charge that they’ve engaged in demonizing marginalized groups.”
(For an interesting discussion about the common ground between pro-Zionist Christians and anti-Semitic white supremacists such as von Brunn, see this article by Ron Eshman.)
Berlet told me that the real enemy here is “apocalyptic conspiracy,” or the notion that there is a coming confrontation between good and evil and once that conflict is played out, there will be a hidden truth revealed that will transform society. In his writings, Berlet has outlined the “tools of fear” used by conspiracy theorists of all kinds: dualism, demonizing, scapegoating, and apocalyptic aggression. He told me that such tools bolster the beliefs of Scott Roeder, von Brunn, and other extremists.
“It comes from an apocalyptic Christian tradition that is very common, but not named in the United States,” said Berlet. He also noted that while there are clear Christian undertones to such a narrative, “it’s long since escaped the religious narrative,” as is evidenced by the case of the anti-Christian von Brunn.
Berlet says this is a unique worldview that is “deeply embedded in the American psyche.” From witch hunts to red scares, the legacy of apocalyptic conspiracy has seen America through some tough times. The hysteria of the past few centuries of this nation’s existence may seem like ancient history, but Berlet notes that themes of apocalyptic conspiracy are recreated in pop culture from Apocalypse Now to John Wayne to High Noon.
Berlet says it’s a meme even academics repeat while expounding on the virtues of the founders of this country, sometimes without understanding the modern ramifications. Berlet reminded me that the hallowed “city on a hill” narrative represents a “protestant theocracy that executed defectors.”
The reason this narrative is so powerful is its popularity. Berlet notes that many Americans have been raised on it, and are “prepped to see the world through conspiracy.” Also adding to that power is that fact that conspiracy is laughed off or ignored as a force by many.
“The rhetorical flames sound very odd to us on the left,” he said. “As a society, we pretend they’re not there.”
Today’s progressives may not be comfortable with the idea, but this is not a uniquely conservative obsession. Berlet said that engagement in apocalyptic conspiracy has taken both the left and right by storm, depending upon what time period of the United States you’re looking at. But right now the right is feeling marginalized, and that’s why reactionary violence is coming generally from that category of fringer.
“Right wing rhetoric has gone off the charts,” Berlet said. “We now have a situation where the right wing has been displaced by a liberal administration, and instead of engaging in a political dialogue… they’re demonizing and scapegoating.”
After discussing the inextricable nature of such apocalyptic conspiracy and the terror it produces, despondency sets in. Or at least it did for me. I asked Berlet what Americans can do to stop this sort of violence from taking over society. He said that the death of Holocaust Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns was almost totally unavoidable.
“You could not stop that kind of attack without a police state,” Berlet said. However, he did suggest that Americans try to tone down the rhetoric, saying “all of us as individuals have failed to stand up against what I call this toxic atmosphere.”
But Berlet notes that there is a special responsibility borne by the leaders of this country.
“We need to hold our public people accountable,” Berlet said, noting that he meant politicians as well as religious and media figures. “This is not acceptable.”
I couldn’t agree more.
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