Are 'Patriot' Groups Dangerous?

Either way, they're growing fast

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The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a new study on Tuesday tracking the growth in anti-government "patriot" groups, defined as "militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their enemy." The study, entitled "Rage on the Right: The Year In Hate And Extremism," documented a 244 percent increase in the number of active patriot groups in 2009.

In light of the recent attack on the IRS building in Austin, some commentators fear the SPLC report foreshadows violence against the government or innocent civilians. Others, such as Sam Stein at The Huffington Post, look for a way to balance the stark findings of the report against the SPLC's reputation "for occasionally making mountains out of molehills." What should we make of it?

  • A Grave Report, With Caveats  Sam Stein fits the report into a narrative of increasing right-wing violence. Yet he concludes by noting the SPLC's reputation for occasional exaggeration, and says that "some of the groups it classifies as threats can be better described as having a threatening message but being impotent in reality."

  • Worse Than in the '90s  Bill Egnor of liberal blog Firedoglake thinks this rise is more troubling than similar trends in the past:
What is particularly troubling this time around are two things, first off the level of on air support the central ideas of these groups have in commentators like Glenn Beck ... The other major difference between now and the 1990's is how the hate groups, the nativist extremists and the "patriot" groups have cross pollinated...

All of this is not to say that I think they are in any way an existential threat the to the United States. They are not. However, given the amount of damage that even a few people can do... it is something we should be aware of and concerned with.
  • The Great Hate Hype Robert Stacy McCain at the conservative American Spectator advises liberals to look past the statistics:
OK, so who are these dangerous "new Patriot groups" we are warned about? The SPLC's roster includes 48 separate listings of a group called "We the People." This a non-profit organization founded by Robert Schultz, a hyper-litigious critic of the Internal Revenue Service. "We the People" appears to be generally libertarian in orientation

After finding the Web site of the Alabama chapter of "We the People," I phoned Huntsville resident Lesha Martin, one of the members listed on the site. Is "We the People" some kind of violent militia-type outfit? Good heavens, no," said Ms. Martin, an admirer of Ron Paul who described herself as devoted to individual freedom and "resurrecting the Constitution. How many peaceful citizens like Lesha Martin are lumped together to create the "grim and alarming portrait... of extremist organizations" presented by the SPLC?

  • This Is Fearmongering, declares Jesse Walker at Reason, claiming that the SPLC, "which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds," is exaggerating the threat posed by patriot groups:
As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible ... But there's another important question: To what extent does this increase in groups represent an actual increase in activists?
  • Not So FastWilliam Jacobson, who writes at right-leaning blog Legal Insurrection, suspects a political motive behind the SPLC's dubious assessment. He does his research:
I pointed out last October the depths to which SPLC goes to smear political opponents, when SPLC falsely accused a black female law professor of being an "apologist for white supremacists." So it is not surprising that SPLC includes libertarians (whose positions on many issues resemble those of the far left) in the list of "patriot" groups...

But there was one aspect of the report which really caught my eye. SPLC's report lists Rhode Island as having three hate groups, but the SPLC "hate map" indicates only a single Ku Klux Klan chapter in Rhode Island. Even that seemed strange to me ... A search of the [Providence Journal] website did not uncover any Klan activity. The only reference at all was to an allegation by a "mentally disabled" person in 2006 that a police officer stated during an arrest that the police officer was a card carrying member of the Klan.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.