Seventeen years ago, on April 19, 1993, the FBI finished off its siege of the Branch Davidians’ home just outside Waco, Texas, by pumping poisonous and flammable CS gas into a room filled with women and children, driving a tank through the wall, throwing incendiary devices at the survivors and, most likely, spraying them with machinegun fire. The conflagration that engulfed the lives of seventy-six people of diverse international and ethnic backgrounds and of all ages, who had been brought together under the fringe but peaceful religious separatism of David Koresh, came at the end of a 51-day standoff that began when the ATF bungled a public-relations stunt in the form of an aggressive raid of the Davidian home, which had been practiced on life-size model buildings and whose planning began in the lame-duck years of the first Bush administration. Koresh could have easily been arrested without all this fanfare and violence – he was an integrated member of the town, and law enforcement had visited the Davidian home and even fired weapons with him at their shooting range – but the ATF had made sure the press would be there to witness their chivalrous swooping in and capture of this menace of Mt. Carmel. Meth lab! Weapons stockpiles! Child molesters! The excuses for this federal militarism in the heart of Texas were numerous and shifting. But when it was all done, a peaceful American community had been utterly destroyed by the U.S. government.
It was an event that crystallized and radicalized populist rightwing anger at the Clinton administration. The left, for the most part, stood by the federal government, swallowed its propaganda about how the Davidians killed themselves, had been a threat to the community, were stockpiling illegal weapons and harboring child abuse. At the White House press conference, journalists applauded the regime. Liberals mocked the religious nuts and began stoking fears that such extremists were not the last. They were thankful to be “protected” by the FBI. Only the most anti-establishment leftists joined the populist right and radical libertarians in their denunciation of this act of governmental mass murder.
As bad as mainstream attitudes toward Waco were in the immediate aftermath, the popular meaning of the massacre was fully inverted through the Oklahoma City incident exactly two years later, on April 19, 1995. This act of mass murder was blamed on rightwing and anti-government extremism, and even on the more moderate anti-Clintonianism of Rush Limbaugh, who himself declared publicly his solidarity with Clinton in bringing the Oklahoma killers to justice. (Just recently, Slick Willy raised concerns that the Tea Parties would breed more Timothy McVeighs.) As for the facts that McVeigh was trained by the government, served the U.S. in the Gulf War, and described the Oklahoma attack as revenge for Waco – this was twisted into a retroactive vindication of the government’s behavior at Waco. As with the blowback explanation of 9/11, the blowback explanation of Oklahoma City with the corollary that U.S. government violence leads to violence at home never got a serious hearing. On the contrary, post-Oklahoma, sympathy for the Branch Davidians became increasingly perceived as sympathy for McVeigh’s cause.
What emerged in the mid- and late-nineties was a narrative of hysteria and paranoia that the populist right, the patriot movement, anti-New World Order types, so-called “hate groups,” and the nation’s diffuse array of militia were all part of a rightwing conspiracy to bring down the U.S. government, and only federal police agencies, the rigorous liberal domestic interventionism of the Democratic Party, and a new era of political correctness engineered by our socially balanced rulers stood between order and chaos. This narrative worked in dampening the right’s dissent. While the Contract with America was a Republican scam whose failure could be pinned on the GOP, the anti-Clinton radicalism behind the 1993 resistance to Hillarycare and anger about Waco were most completely neutralized by the militia hysteria that conflated David Koresh with Timothy McVeigh and conservative dissent with anti-American terrorism.
This narrative was suspended during the Bush II era, when the main terrorist threat was seen as coming from abroad, and the Republican administration was busy erecting a 21st century national security state and launching two aggressive wars of occupation purportedly to keep Americans safe from a boogeyman even worse than McVeigh – a boogeyman with an alien culture, plans to conquer America in the name of Islam or kill thousands or more in the attempt to do so, and turn back the clock a millennium. For a few years the left dissented, at times heroically, viewing the conservative wing of America as a danger insofar as it wielded power, not insofar as it protested government. This meant the left’s critiques were far more trenchant and correct than in the 1990s, but at the same time Bushian violence was mostly opposed in the context of respectable public policy disagreements. Most left-liberals saw Bush’s Iraq war as a disaster, but would not dare put U.S. wars on the same moral plane as the acts of 9/11 or Oklahoma City.
There were exceptions. On the fringes of the left, there were grand denunciations of Bush as a fascist, a Nazi, a war criminal. Images at antiwar protests depicted the president with a Hitler mustache. Those on the far left compared Bush to the most despised of all totalitarians, and the center left brushed off this radical rhetoric as harmless and in the spirit of dissent, the highest form of patriotism.
But these radicals were exceptions. In any event, most of the left failed to be permanently radicalized in the Bush years. Waco had been mostly forgotten, and progressives could not be bothered to rethink what they thought they knew about their beloved federal government. They knew they hated Bush, but most Democratic voters would never come to revise their understanding of Clinton’s wars and domestic depredations, or see the Bush term as just a particularly egregious installment in a long series of murderous and authoritarian presidencies – a line of would-be dictators that included most of the left’s favorite modern statesmen from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson.
In September 2005, the Bush administration’s response to Katrina taught the leftwing dissidents all the wrong lessons. Instead of reacting in horror to the martial law, the gun confiscations, the use of FEMA and military personnel back from Iraq to tame the people of New Orleans, seeing these as dangerous precedents for the creation of a police state, the respectable left adopted the universal critique that Bush was not doing enough. The government was too laissez-faire. As always, the problem with Republican rule was that it was insufficiently activist – even at the height of an administration that amassed so much power in Washington, unleashed terror upon two Muslim societies, murdered hundreds of thousands of people, and penetrated one traditional constraint upon government after another, we were all supposed to hate Bush mostly because he was too anti-government.
The failure of the left to learn the obvious lessons from the Bush experience – the Actonian axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – has contributed to the peculiar political dynamic and maddening hypocrisy we see now that the Brown Scare is coming back, perhaps worse than it was in Clinton’s time or even in FDR’s, when the president had a long list of political enemies compiled for purposes of imprisoning them if the right circumstances arose.
It is increasingly often that one mainstream news outlet or another builds on the narrative that the fabric of America is being threatened by out-of-power rightwing extremists. This narrative thrives through the conflation of varying strains of anti-establishment thought and activity, all bundled together to paint a picture of American Brown Shirts conspiring not to erect the modern activist central state, as the Nazis had done, but to tear it down. This hysteria is partisan, and so it is directed against relatively mainstream Republicans, the odd loose-cannon killer motivated by extremism or racism, normal Americans who fear for their country’s economic health under a conspicuously active presidency, and everyone in between who is not ecstatic about Obama’s policies.
How is the conflation of anti-government sentiment and actual violence, including against the innocent, achieved? A contribution from Salon.com to the new Brown Scare, entitled “A history of anti-government rage and violence” and providing an eerie slideshow of anti-government extremism, is fairly typical. Opposition to Obama’s health care plan is shown to be part of a menacing historical pattern of resistance to the U.S. government – the slideshow includes the Whiskey Rebellion; the New York Draft Riots; opposition to Reconstruction, Integration and Social Security; anti-JFK animosity and the Davidians’ resistance at Waco. Some of these events involved violence, others simply peaceful political opposition, but all of it is missing its crucial context – a government at least as belligerent as those standing in dissent. Not that all of it is benign: the Draft Riots, for example, involved violence against the innocent – but so did the draft itself and the way Lincoln militarily pacified the rioters. This part of the story is dropped. In portraying the government in these conflicts as the embodiment of social order, progress, racial harmony, economic fairness and national unity, critics of a government takeover of medicine are practically called out as enemies of all that is good in modern society. Quite tellingly, the Vietnam war protesters are also included in this picturesque story of nefarious anti-government agitation. Even the progressive left’s greatest anti-government cause of the last several generations, the 1960s antiwar movement, is in the crosshairs of the liberal media’s pro-government depiction of American history as a struggle between the mainstream state and the peripheral Americans who oppose it.
It is again gauche to suggest that the U.S. government is a serious threat to our liberty. While the left at times appropriately condemned Bush’s warmaking, warrantless wiretapping, violations of habeas corpus and flouting of due process, the left has now become resigned to the precise policies being carried out by their hero Barack Obama. Just as important, they have forgotten what it meant to be more afraid of their government than of their fellow Americans upset about that government. All this Bush-era despotism continues unabated, but now it is seen as unseemly, unpatriotic, hateful, and even criminal to suggest that the U.S. government has authoritarian practices and totalitarian designs.
When Sarah Palin was taken to the woodshed for suggesting that the government might create “death panels” to ration health care to the elderly, the implication was that the mere concern about such a possibility was motivated by hatred or dishonesty. But we all knew that in the quasi-private health care sector, decisions of life and death are already decided by medical boards at hospital boards and insurance companies. If the government becomes even more involved in determining the allocation of resources, of course something like government death panels will be a likely result. But more strikingly, the very same institution that massacred the Branch Davidians under Clinton, slaughtered innocent Iraqis and Afghans under Bush, and now, under Obama, claims the prerogative to execute American citizens by fiat, is somehow seen on the left as such an unambiguous guardian of health and American well-being so that to insinuate its propensity to let Americans die is an act of sedition. Sarah Palin’s sins go beyond her concern about Obamacare – and for the most part, they are not her unmitigated neocon warmongering, corporatist economic prescriptions or disregard for the Bill of Rights. What she is most attacked for is not being sufficiently in love with leviathan. During the presidential election, she was lambasted for her foreign policy ignorance but she was feared more for her husband’s connection to secessionists. Had her partisan opponents ever genuinely wanted to rein in the American empire, surely secessionist sentiment would be welcomed, or at least tolerated, as an acceptable disposition.
And in the hatred of secessionism, of the ideas of nullification and political decentralism, we see the ugly nationalism of the politically correct left. Even constitutional talk of the Tenth Amendment makes one a “Tenther” – on par with a 9/11 Truther or Birther – as though the notion that the Tenth Amendment has some teeth and might, by some reasonable interpretation, preclude at least some of the left-liberal program, is not worth seriously refuting – as though there is something cultish and insidious about believing that the federalism of the Framers is not the national supremacism of today. The federal government is an eternal institution, apparently, and Sarah Palin has associated with too many folks who question its legitimacy.
Glenn Beck, too, is primarily hated for his questioning the authority of the federal government – not his many past calls for foreign war and nationalism, but for his current failure to accept government’s slow war on the American people. For most of the left, the palatable Republican personality is someone like Lindsey Graham, who despite being a neocon on war is also pro–Cap and Trade and in favor of moderate domestic socialism. Graham has not been accused of hatemongering or threatening the tranquility of our great land, even as he pushes for new executive powers to detain American citizens indefinitely. Hating welfare, global warming alarmism, gun control and ACORN are the worst transgressions against respectability. You can crazily favor war with Iran – as increasing numbers of progressives seem to – and still be in the community of official opinion, but if you harbor too much fear and distrust toward FEMA, you might as well be locked up in an asylum.
The Tea Parties have been dragged through the mud because some of their members dress up like colonial-era Americans, protest the census and go so far as to compare Obama to Hitler. But I was at several antiwar marches in 2003, and the radicalism on the left was just as ostentatious and, from my point of view, appreciated. Leftist radicals would perform street theater, covering themselves with fake blood, holding up images of Bush in precisely the unflattering light in which discontented populists now portray Obama, and in some heroic cases even pleading their fellow Americans to protest war taxes.
But now it is considered insane, if not dangerous, to question the census, the Department of Homeland Security or other worshipped secular institutions. On the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a number of census opponents were brought on a panel and ridiculed. One of them was an Arab-American concerned with the privacy rights of his people, and his concerns were brushed off in a rude joke – despite the collusion between the Census Bureau and Homeland Security post-9/11 to share data on Arab-Americans. The conservatives were mocked for talking like middle-Americans. The fact that the census was used to round up Japanese-Americans was brought up and met with laughter by the audience. I bet at least a few were thinking, “Obama would never round people up like the U.S. did to the Japanese – he’s a good progressive Democrat, like Franklin Roosevelt!”
Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Republican talk radio, the Tea Party movement and other relatively mainstream voices of Obama opposition do not comprise all the targets in the establishment’s new Brown Scare. They, especially the Tea Parties, are meant to be chilled into silence and complacency or marginalized – but the ammunition used by the new war on right-wing dissent comes from the weaving together of a narrative that depicts the right-wing as most perilous when it is out of power.
Since the release of the MIAC report last year and a number of unrelated incidents, the liberal media have been thrilled to create an image of disenfranchised rightwing anti-government hatred on the brink of boiling over and doing great harm to our country. When abortionist George Tiller was murdered and then James von Brunn murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum, a hysterical Rachel Maddow went on the air and tried to create a connection where there was none. Like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and the Pakistani who runs the nearby convenience store, all menacing figures are brought together in an imagined conspiracy against the established order. The Hutaree militia set-up, wherein a group of people too small for two poker tables was accused of planning violence against police and using “weapons of mass destruction” to bring down the U.S. government, was met not with suspicion or even laughter, but serious concern on NPR, on Rachel Maddow, in the center-left imagination of a future in which police and social workers protect us from the chaotic violence of nine people in Michigan. Such journalists scrambled to show a connection with racist groups, only to determine there was none. But the idea of anti-government racists killing police is at the center of their worries now – not the police tasing and arresting innocent Americans every day and occasionally killing people, much less foreign policy. Just as rap songs about killing cops scared conservatives out of their wits in the 1990s, the ravings of some marginal Americans in the woods who had been infiltrated by the FBI are the new social epidemic worrying the left, worthy of censorship and a stern government response. The government is now the most persecuted victim group – worthy of far more advocates in journalism than the Muslim children being liquidated by U.S. remote-control robots every day.
A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which under Democratic regimes becomes a virtual arm of the state, targets the new “patriots” and enablers of the “anti-government” extremist movement. Much of the list is predictably absurd. Michelle Bachman is attacked for opposing the census, telling the truth about how it was used in World War II, and having skepticism toward AmeriCorp. “Somewhere, Joseph McCarthy must be smiling,” the document says, and I agree. His spirit is smiling at the efforts to malign all in political life who subscribe to something even more subversive than Communism – any notion that U.S. political power ought to be limited. Glenn Beck is also targeted, and the criticisms are not even coherent – for example, “he delivered the keynote address to 10,000 right-wing activists who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference.” Oh no!
Joseph Farah is smeared because he questioned the official story behind Vince Foster’s death. The president of the John Birch Society is attacked because, like all good Birchers, he hates socialism and fears it is in America’s future. Libertarian and other anti-government activists are targeted in the new SPLC blacklist, including a man who legally carried a rifle to some political protest (and who unsettlingly points out that Obama has killed more people than he has), and Sheriff Mack, who dares to say law enforcers should not enforce unjust, illegal laws and that the IRS should be abolished.
But most absurd of all is the SPLC’s attacks on Judge Andrew Napolitano and Ron Paul. The judge, a principled libertarian who opposed all of Bush’s lawless power-grabs and acts of foreign empire-building and who consistently applies the same critiques to Obama, is targeted for believing the federal government should be at least 2/3 smaller than it is now and supporting the rights of states to secede. The most substantive criticism of Ron Paul, the most principled, least partisan and most dedicated to non-violence and tolerance of all the members of Congress, is that he believes that taxation is immoral, the U.S. should withdraw from the UN and the Fed is crooked.
The only thing most, although not all, of the people branded as enablers of or participants in rightwing extremism agree on is that they oppose the current U.S. government and believe tyranny is possible and perhaps impending in America. For this they are smeared and all attempts are made to chill their dissent. Some would call the fear of crackdowns on dissent itself a form of rightwing paranoia, but when establishment liberals happily talk about prosecuting people for “seditious conspiracy” and creating speech codes, there is plenty to be legitimately concerned about.
Further, many of the concerns of the extremist rightwing, the patriots, the anti-government populist movement, the Tea Parties and even inconsistent statists like Glenn Beck are not off-base. And the most disenfranchised and least respectable of the voices are often the ones who stumble upon something resembling the truth.
Seventeen years ago in 1993, the federal government did in fact murder dozens of Americans who were no threat to anyone. The same government has in fact violated the rights of American citizens, rounded people into concentration camps, silenced and infiltrated politically peaceful groups, conspired against the people in numerous ways, drugged, poisoned and withheld medicine from Americans without their knowing, lied repeatedly about war and serious law enforcement matters, jailed people without due process, imposed martial law on segments of the domestic population, seized guns from law-abiding gunowners, broken down American doors and held scared children at gunpoint, planned the creation of extralegal judicial institutions to process American citizens, targeted political enemies with the IRS and other police agencies, forced Americans to labor and even kill and die under threat of imprisonment, overseen the largest prison system in the world, shoveled trillions of borrowed dollars to corrupt financial institutions and killed millions of civilians abroad – all in the lifetime of many who are still alive. The U.S. police state has in fact been growing since 9/11 and even before – and Obama has done nothing to stem its growth. On the contrary, he has continued the mix of economic fascism, imperialism, surveillance and lawless detention policy that characterized the Bush years.
Indeed, the most dangerous rightwing extremist in my lifetime was George W. Bush. Obama is following in his footsteps. That so many Americans are more frightened of rightwingers out of power than in power – more bothered by conservatives who hate Washington than those who control or want to control it – and more offended by anti-government rhetoric than the Democratic president continuing the policies they claimed to hate under Republican rule – shows how little they have learned from Waco and all that has happened since.