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Political Violence and Privilege

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Posted on Jul 10, 2013
Andrew Aliferis (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Matthew Harwood, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

When people fear the police, tips dry up, potentially making the community less safe. This is important, especially given that the Muslim-American community has helped prevent, depending on whose figures you use, from 21%-40% of all terrorism plots associated with Muslims since 9/11. That’s grounds for cooperation, not alienation: a lesson that would have been learned by a police department with strong ties to and trust in the community.

Numbers May Not Lie, But They Sure Can Be Ignored

The idea that American law enforcement’s mass surveillance of Muslim communities is a necessary, if unfortunate, counterterrorism tool rests with the empirically false notion that American Muslims are more prone to political violence than other Americans.

This is simply not true.

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According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), right-wing terrorists perpetrated 145 “ideologically motivated homicide incidents” between 1990 and 2010. In that same period, notes START, “al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda-inspired extremists, and secular Arab Nationalists committed 27 homicide incidents in the United States involving 16 perpetrators or groups of perpetrators.”

Last November, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published a report on America’s violent far-right extremists. Its numbers were even more startling than START’s. “The consolidated dataset,” writes report author Arie Perliger, “includes information on 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 within U.S. borders, and which caused 670 fatalities and injured 3,053 people.” Perliger also found that the number of far-right attacks had jumped 400% in the first 11 years of the 21st century.

It’s highly probable that the FBI drastically undercounts instances of terrorism perpetrated by right-wing extremists because of cultural double standards. As the New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen has noted, attacks associated with anti-abortion or white supremacist ideologies are rarely, if ever, counted as terrorist attacks.  A typical example: the massacre of worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012 by a white supremacist.

Simply put, there is an unhealthy obsession among American law enforcement agencies (and American society at large) with stopping violence perpetrated by American Muslims, one that is wholly out of line with the numbers. There is no doubt that the events of 9/11 play into this—never mind that not one hijacker was American—but there is something much darker at work here as well. It’s the fear of a people, a culture, and a religion that most Americans do not understand and therefore see as alien and dangerous.

The fear of the “other” has wiggled its way into the core of another American generation.

“While Vile, All of This Speech Is Protected by the First Amendment”

 Widespread surveillance and suspicion aren’t the only things American Muslims have to worry about, feel frustrated by, or fear. They can also point to the way fellow American Muslims are treated in the larger criminal justice system.

Since 9/11, the FBI has used tactics that clearly raise the issue of entrapment in arresting hundreds of Muslims inside the U.S. on terrorism-related charges. Investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, did the hard work of compiling and analyzing all of these cases between September 11, 2001, and August 2011. What he found was alarming.

“Of the 508 defendants, 243 had been targeted through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49 had encountered an agent provocateur. Most of the people who didn’t face off against an informant weren’t directly involved with terrorism at all, but were instead Category II offenders, small-time criminals with distant links to terrorists overseas. Seventy-two of these Category II offenders had been charged with making false statements, while 121 had been prosecuted for immigration violations. Of the 508 cases, I could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists… who posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.”

Those numbers, however damning, still don’t fully reflect the inequity American Muslims face within the U.S. criminal justice system when it comes to terrorism allegations. An analysis of two separate but similar cases offers a clear sense of how terrorism allegations targeting the American right and American Muslims in the criminal justice system can end with very different results. The common question running through two federal terrorism prosecutions—one against a group of seven anti-government right-wing Christian paranoids, better known as the Hutaree Militia, and the other against a Massachusetts pharmacist and Islamic radical—is what kind of speech is protected by the First Amendment and just who can rest safely under its shield?

In late March 2010, FBI raids led to the arrest of members of the Hutaree Militia across the Midwest.  A Christian Patriot militia, Hutaree members believed that the end of the world was near and local, state, and federal law enforcement officers were actually “foot soldiers” in the “New World Order.” According to the federal indictment, Hutaree leader David Brian Stone, Sr., planned the murder of a local police officer. But that was just to be the bait. When law enforcement from across the nation attended his burial, the Hutaree would attack the funeral procession with improvised explosive devices and other homemade bombs, sparking a revolt against the government.

Seven Hutaree members were charged with at least four felonies, including seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Like many post-9/11 counterterrorism investigations, the case was built via an undercover FBI agent, primarily by using the violent, antigovernment statements some of the accused made as proof that a terrorist conspiracy existed. The defendants all filed motions for a judgment of acquittal, arguing that the government didn’t have enough evidence to sustain a conviction.


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