Perhaps encouraged by a recent act of alleged politically-motivated terrorism, a man with ties to white supremacist groups allegedly engaged in an act of deadly violence yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Police have identified James von Brunn, who decries Jews and blacks on a "rambling, racist and bitterly anti-Semitic website," as the shooter.
Here, you can read some of the anti-Semitic rantings of von Brunn in which he suggests that the "Nazi Gas Chambers" were not real and that Jewish people are imbued with Teh Incredible Power of the Jew. Although the target is different, the suspect's writing is disturbingly similar to the deeply paranoid anti-gay, anti-liberal manifesto that a man wrote prior to murdering two people in a liberal, gay-affirming church. It is due to instances like these, that I remain somewhat frightened by some of the writings I read on the internet on a daily basis. The "villains" change but it is clear that people who see themselves not as oppressor, but as oppressed, are absolutely convinced that certain minorities are both involved in sinister conspiracies and responsible for the decline of authentic culture and society. History shows that this warped sense of victimhood allows people to treat Others in horrific, inhuman, and abusive ways.
I am not sure what motivates people who hold strong beliefs to cross over that line and engage in politically-motivated violence. It probably varies from person to person. From what I've read, I think that it has to do with a combination of factors. For one, that sense of victimhood- that inability to see oneself as an aggressor- allows people to think they are only engaging in defensive, rather than offensive, behavior. Two, absolutism- the belief that there is only one right way to live and that particulars can be stated as universal truths- precedes and is a strong justification for violence. Third, and perhaps this is the most important factor, violence becomes more acceptable to people when they believe that those they are killing are not the same type of human that they themselves are.
Anthropologist Eric Wolf observed in his chapter regarding the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in Envisioning Power, conceptualizing human beings as Others, "disease organisms," or otherwise evil eventually "becomes abstract and powerful enough to justify not merely severance but destruction." Working in combination, we can see how violence might be very appealing to those who believe what they are doing is morally right and is the just consequence of being victimized by evil, sub-human beings who are "immoral." I don't think it even takes someone to be particularly unhinged to justify any means to eliminate those Others who do not engage in, believe in, or follow the Greater Good. Obviously, we observed this during the Holocaust when Otherwise Normal People carried out the orders of the Nazi party and committed heinous crimes against humanity.
Knowing that we're all connected, I struggle with accepting humanity's dark side, along with its lighter side. What I mean by that is that, as human beings, each of us has the capacity for violence within us. Each of us, therefore, has the responsibility to acknowledge that and to always be vigilant when we feel those seeds of anger, violence, and hatred within ourselves begin to bloom. I know that many people have convinced themselves that they do not feel anger or hatred towards Others and that they have nothing but the love of the Baby Jesus for certain groups, but I don't think those people are recognizing what it is they are truly feeling. It is much easier to label one's feelings "love" than it is to actually experience and demonstrate love and compassion. When I see people continually insist that certain people are pathological, evil, immoral, perverse, or otherwise not at all like Normal Humans, I see only people who are extremely clumsy and reckless with what they put out into the world. If they themselves do not condone physical violence, other people obviously do, and take the demonizations a bit more to heart than perhaps they were intended.
Before these most recent incidents in (alleged) rightwing domestic terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning (PDF) that rightwing extremism was going through a resurgence due to the economic downturn and the election of an African-American president. Many conservatives had a defensive knee-jerk reaction to this document, but I think they missed the part where if you're not a violent rightwing extremist, this report wasn't talking about you.
I suspect that many people are, or feel as though they are, on the receiving end of hatred in some way. I think we all need to think about what it is we are putting out into the world and to be more mindful of how we may be watering the seeds of anger, hatred, and violence in other people. And, if you condone violence, explicitly say so. And condone violence when you see it, even if it's done by people with the same political beliefs as you.