What if Right-Wing Groups Were Targeted by Anti-Terror Policies?

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If anti-Muslim extremists are treated the same as suspected Islamist radicals, what does this mean for conservative extremists in a post-Oslo world?

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In Norway, as the citizenry mourns, the police are hard at work. During interrogations, Anders Behring Breivik has claimed that "two cells in Norway and several cells around Europe and the Western world" stand ready to carry out more terrorist attacks. His manifesto refers to "brothers and sisters in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the U.S. etc." Although we don't yet know if Breivik is telling the truth, his chilling statement begs a question: Will anti-Muslim extremists mount future terrorist attacks?

Asked to wager, I'd bet he's bluffing. But American counterterrorism authorities don't have the prerogative of gambling on such matters. Due diligence demands that they investigate, cognizant that other right-wing acts of terrorism have happened before.

"The biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history prior to 9/11 -- the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing -- was carried out by Timothy McVeigh... That same year, Eric Rudolph bombed the Atlanta Olympics to protest abortion and international socialism," Peter Beinart writes. "In 2009, anti-abortion militants murdered Wichita doctor George Tiller. (He already had been shot once, and his clinic had been bombed). That same year octogenarian neo-Nazi, James Wenneker von Brunn, shot a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last February, Andrew Joseph Stack, angry at the federal government, flew a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas."

A hodge-podge of crimes, to be sure, but had any of them been undertaken by a Muslim radical, it'd be included on the list invoked to show that 9/11 wasn't the only Islamist attack on America: there's the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, Major Hassan and the Ft. Hood shootings. For hawks in the War on Terrorism, those acts are invoked to justify a panoply of controversial policies: interrogations so harsh they cross into torture, holding suspects indefinitely without charges, a long list of institutions to which it's illegal to donate money, executive assassinations sans due process, trials by military tribunal rather than civilian courts, and many more.  

Are the people who favor those policies, from Dick Cheney to Andy McCarthy to Barack Obama, in favor of applying them to right-wing terrorism investigations, right-wing terrorist suspects, and the people who associate with them? Do they realize that thanks to the precedents they've helped establish, they may not have a choice? If a couple more right-wing terrorist attacks transpire, or even if a single major casualty attack like the Oklahoma City bombing again succeeds, U.S. law enforcement is likely to treat anyone suspected of being on the radical far-right in many of the same aggressive, unconstitutional ways that have so far only been applied to those suspected of radical Islamism, which resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of scores of people. Where do terror hawks stand on this plausible, terrifying future?

A hypothetical is in order, but in the place of an unrealistic, ticking-time bomb scenario, let's ponder a situation that is scrupulously plausible.

Somewhere in the world, there is a small copycat attack by a right-wing crazy that cites the Norway killer as inspiration. Five people are killed. The next week, national security officials in the U.S. get a tip from Oslo police: the killer claims an attack inside America is next (there's no way to know if he's telling the truth). Independently, an FBI field office monitoring an extremist anti-Muslim group reports rumors that someone in the anti-Muslim community has posted a manifesto online, one that mentions the same writers as the Oslo killer, and alludes to the manifesto writer's impending death sometime in the next few weeks.

Should Obama have the authority to waterboard any right-winger he wants if the person is thought to have knowledge that could prevent an impending attack? If a Red State diarist banned from that community for racist posts comes under suspicion, should he enjoy all the due process rights of an American? Or should be declared an enemy combatant, whisked off to Gitmo, and interrogated? If it turns out that the same suspect has traded emails with Mark Steyn, should law enforcement be permitted to go through Steyn's email, bank, and telephone records without telling him? Should Scandinavian-looking people get extra scrutiny at airport security?

One lesson Americans should take from the tragedy in Norway, as we conduct our domestic political debate on counterterrorism, is that radical Islam's status as the most likely terrorist threat doesn't make it the only threat of that kind -- and that giving American politicians extraordinary power to prevent terrorism implicates all of our civil liberties, even the anti-Islamist war on terror hawks who imprudently championed the most egregious post-9/11 excesses back when it seemed like only Muslims would need to worry about the consequences.


Image credit: Department of Homeland Security
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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