Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some recent terrorist history - and our clueless punditocracy

Frank Rich, one of the more coherent liberals among the punditocracy but one sharing much of the limitations of the punditocracy of which he is a member in good standing, writes about domestic terrorist in The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged New York Times 02/27/10.

His column prompted me to think of some the major domestic terrorist cases in the United States in 2009.

Richard Andrew Poplawski: white supremacist and neo-Nazi cop-killer

A portrait of contrasts emerges from those who knew Poplawski by Rich Lord and Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 04/12/09:

Accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers in an incident that shook the city's sense of security, Richard Andrew Poplawski was sometimes described as intelligent and thoughtful, but he was prone to violence in relationships and racism in his writings that he hid even from those who had long known him. ...

Researchers at the Anti-Defamation League have pieced together what they believe, based on screen names and photos, to be postings by Mr. Poplawski, largely on, a "White Pride" Web site.

He posted what purports to be a picture of the woman he's writing about with "her next boyfriend," who is black. He also wrote of trying to chase down "groids," whom he accused of stealing his mother's car. ...

Mr. Poplawski's scholarly ambitions shifted from dentistry to computers. Mr. Carrano said he didn't pick up on any racism, though Mr. Poplawski did refer to the Haitians with whom he worked as "dirty people."

Mr. Carrano did not interpret the large eagle tattoo on his housemate as a sign of fringe thinking. In online writings in February of this year, the author believed to be Mr. Poplawski called the tattoo "a deliberately Americanized version of the iron eagle" -- a Nazi symbol used by domestic racist groups -- and "symbolic of freedom and nationalism."
A forest of lone wolves by Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 06/14/09:

For lone wolves, these guys sure have a lot of company.

On April 4, white-power conspiracy enthusiast Richard Poplawski laid in wait for police to answer his mother's call to get him out of their Stanton Heights house. When they arrived, he shot Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Eric Kelly and Stephen Mayhle to death in cold blood.
Friend of accused cop-killer Poplawski arrested by Jerome Sherman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 09/05/10:

A man who has described himself as the best friend of accused cop-killer Richard Poplawski was arrested two weeks ago after saying he would "shoot any officer that shows up at his house," according to court documents.

Edward Perkovic, 23, made the statement during a drunken argument with his girlfriend Aug. 19 at a house in the 300 block of South Winebiddle Street in Bloomfield, an affidavit said. When police arrived, they found a loaded .45-caliber Colt long rifle in a closet.

In the days after three city police officers were killed in Stanton Heights on April 4, Mr. Perkovic spoke publicly about the views of Mr. Poplawski, the man who is facing murder charges in the case.

"He was really into politics and really into the First and Second amendment," Mr. Perkovic told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in April. "One thing he feared was the gun ban because he thought that was going to take away peoples' right to defend themselves. He never spoke of going out to murder or to kill." [my emphasis]
James W. von Brunn, Holocaust denier and terrorist murderer

CNN June 06/10/2009:

A rifle-wielding white supremacist entered Washington's Holocaust museum on Wednesday afternoon, fatally shooting a security guard before being wounded himself by return fire from other guards, authorities said.

Stephen Tyrone Johns, a six-year veteran of the museum's security staff, later "died heroically in the line of duty," said Sara Bloomfield, museum director.

Law enforcement sources identified the suspect as James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old white supremacist from Maryland.
Follow-up CNN story 06/11/09:

An 88-year-old Maryland man with a long history of ties to white supremacist groups is the suspect in Wednesday's fatal shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two law enforcement officials told CNN.

James W. von Brunn served six years in prison for trying to make what he called a "legal, non-violent citizens arrest" of Federal Reserve Board members in 1981 -- a prison term he blamed on "a Negro jury, Jew/Negro attorneys" and "a Jew judge," he said on his Web site, Holy Western Empire.
Scott Roeder, Christian terrorist and murderer

Slaying Raises Fears on Both Sides of Abortion Debate by Peter Slevin Washington Post 06/02/10:

In Wichita, dozens of mourners left flowers outside Tiller's clinic, where an American flag flew at half-staff. Across town, the man accused of killing the doctor awaited formal charges in the Sedgwick County jail.

Scott Roeder was arrested on an interstate a few hours after an assailant fired a single bullet from a handgun at Tiller at Reformation Lutheran Church as he handed out church bulletins. Roeder, suspected of acting alone, has emerged as a fierce abortion opponent once arrested with bomb components in his car. ...

Fellow abortion opponents described Roeder as a foot soldier convinced that killing an abortion doctor is not a crime because it saves the lives of unborn children. In a 2007 Internet posting, a person identifying himself as "Scott Roeder" said Tiller is "the concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day and needs to be stopped."
There were other instances of particularly dramatic violence in 2009 in the US, of course. Four policemen were murdered in Oakland, though the shooter who was killed in a shootout seems to have been running from the law for non-political crimes and seemed to have no political motive, unlike Richard Poplawski in Pittsburgh.

And Maj. Abdulhakim Muhammad went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, in what may very well have been a crime motivated by political goals, his anger over US military actions in Muslim countries. But the Pentagon has kept a remarkably tight lid on news about that case. It seems like that his crime was also a case of domestic political terrorism, but until we see more actual evidence in the public record, we can't be sure. As Glenn Greenwald has documented, our media now tend to apply the label "terrorist" only to Muslims who attack Americans, not politically-motivated far-right terrorists who have seemingly clear political motives involved in their attacks.

I hope we don't see it, but if we do have some instance of actual leftwing domestic terrorism - like some radical ecology group bombing the offices of some company whose environmental record is a particular target - I'll be curious to see whether our pundits and star reporters will be willing to use the "terrorist" label for them.

Since being anti-Muslim is a major preoccupation of our xenophobic and often heavily Christian-Identity-influenced violent far right in the US, probably a lot of the public and certainly many ideological conservatives consider Islamist violence as "left". But that doesn't really make sense in political terms. With their theocratic aims and super-conservative family and sexual politics, they are rightwingers by almost any measure; it's just that they religion is Islam, not Christian.

What is striking about Frank Rich's column is that he writes as if he hadn't noticed that there might be a problem with far-right domestic terrorism and with the eliminationist rhetoric of even some "respectable" Republicans until the far-right anti-tax protester Andrew Joseph Stack III flew his suicide mission against the IRS offices in Austin, killing one employee and causing considerable damage. Rich writes:

What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass — or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a "Tea Party terrorist." But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack’s credo — rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.
Rich sounds like he just woke up from a long sleep that began sometime before Obama took office as President. And when he does try to write about how current Tea Party and Republican rhetoric may contribute to far-right instability, he does it in such a painfully sloppy way that people sympathetic to his general viewpoint may wish he hadn't even bothered. I can't even quite get my mind around what he might mean by this:

But in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.

“I knew Joe had a hang-up with the I.R.S. on account of them breaking him, taking his savings away,” said Jack Cook, the stepfather of Mr. Stack’s wife, in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma. “And that’s undoubtedly the reason he flew the airplane against that building. Not to kill people, but just to damage the I.R.S.”
I really don't know what to make of this. There's always someone who will say that the mass-murderer next door seemed like such a pleasant guy and they would never have expected such a thing from him. And gullible reporters seem to be endlessly willing to take it down like good stenographers. How much special training would someone need to ask a couple of questions about such comments, like: Who ever wants to think they have a terrorist or serial killer living next door? And isn't it possible that anyone acquainted with the person might feel inclined to pretend they didn't have the slightest clue about the accused's violent leanings?

And Rich seems to take it at face value when Stack's wife's stepfather says that Stack "had a hang-up with the I.R.S" and then declares: "And that’s undoubtedly the reason he flew the airplane against that building. Not to kill people, but just to damage the I.R.S."

How hard can it be to see that this makes no freaking sense? He chose an office building and flew his plane into it in the middle of the days but he only wanted to hurt some abstraction called the IRS and had no idea he would kill people?

Rich is working from the long-standing formula that made some reality-based sense since in, say, 1965, in which as long as the Democrats distanced themselves from the tiny Communist Party and the Republicans from the John Birch Society, that made them safe and responsible centrists. And sure enough, he mentions one of the set pieces in this antique view: "Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Waterloo". And how many times are we going to have to see our Pod Pundits quote the late William Buckley's opinions from the 1960s about what Rich calls, "the John Birch Society, another far-right organization that has re-emerged after years of hibernation." Somebody has been hibernating, but it hasn't been the JBS. As Michelle Goldberg, Chris Hedges, Max Blumenthal and others have documented, the JBS has been a major influence in shaping the current Christian Right worldview. That would be the Christian Right that is now the base constituency of the Republican Party of the great moderate Maverick McCain. And the JBS has always maintained influence among rich Republican ideologues. But in Frank Rich's epistemology, anything that he's slept through must have itself been hibernating. He notes that the JBS' views "remain unchanged" from the 1960s. Uh, no, Frank. They're still bigots and crackpots, but they have been adjusting their extremist views all along to current events. No, they haven't been hibernating.

Despite the role of Dick Armey's FreedomWorks in financing Tea Party events, the organizing activities of Glenn Beck and FOX News, their endorsement by Republican stars like Sarah Palin and much more, Rich is struck by how very different the Tea Party movement is from the nice, respectable Republican Party that has made torture one of its most beloved core values.

How does he know this? Why, the Tea Partiers criticize that fine moderate Maverick McCain! "They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush." The seemingly endless man-crushes of our male pundits, even the alleged liberal ones like Rich, on the hardline rightwinger and nasty old white guy John McCain is one of the more bizarre political phenomena of the last two decades.

In the last few paragraphs, he tries half-heartedly and without making much sense to talk about the ways in which Republicans may be encouraging far-right crackpots among the Tea Partiers and JBSers and so forth. But the main thing his column shows is his own cluelessness.

The pundit bus arrives

Via NetFlix, I've been watching the 1960s sci-fi TV series The Invaders, in which space aliens disguise themselves as human beings and try various things to conquer the Earth for presumably nefarious purposes. It would be easy to believe that a large portion of our pundit corps were such space aliens. But the ones in The Invaders were hard to detect at a distance. A lot of them had a hand deformity of the pinkie fingers or the thumbs. But the signs from our star pundits are much stronger. They just don't process information in the way most terrestrial beings do. Now, there's no actual evidence that they are Pod People from outer space. It's just that it's the only theory I've heard advanced that comes close to explaining their alternative consciousnesses.

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