The slaying of six people at a Sikh temple by a gunman with ties to white supremacists has raised questions about the scope of domestic terrorism — and what law enforcement is doing to stop it.
Federal law enforcement agencies cracked down hard on homegrown extremists after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children at a day care center. Many leaders went to prison, died or went bankrupt.
But in recent years, the spread of the Internet, the worsening economy and changing demographic patterns have been giving new voice to hate groups.
White supremacists are generally motivated by a desire to separate themselves from people of other races — and deep fears that they are losing ground. No one keeps track of exactly how many there are. But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate movements, estimated there were at least 133 racist skinhead clusters inside the United States last year.
The Anti-Defamation League, which also closely follows extremists, reports that Wisconsin shooter Wade Michael Page had been a member of the Hammerskin Nation, the most violent and well-organized of the white supremacist groups. Prospective members undergo a probationary period, pay dues to the organization and pledge their loyalty.
It's such a serious promise, according to Mark Potok of the SPLC, that Hammerskin members have been known to hunt down defectors and cut the white power tattoos from their bodies.
There's no clear definition of domestic terrorism, but a May 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service suggests that law enforcement uses the term to describe extremists in the U.S. who are motivated by ideology but without strong ties to an overseas group. The U.S. government doesn't formally designate domestic extremist groups, unlike foreign terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.
But there's plenty of evidence that American-grown haters can get access to lethal materials and deploy them inside U.S. borders. Late last year, Kevin Harpham was sentenced to spend 32 years in prison for his role in planting a sophisticated backpack bomb along a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade route in Spokane, Wash. The bomb, studded with nails designed to blow in every direction, was discovered shortly before the start of the festivities. The FBI said Harpham had contact with neo-Nazi organizations.
And in February of this year, Jeffrey Harbin of Arizona was sentenced to prison after he pleaded guilty to transporting improvised explosive devices — including homemade grenades and pipe bombs he allegedly made using model rocket engines — along the southwest border with Mexico. Researchers say Harbin was a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
Analysts like Potok and agents at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives increasingly are sounding the alarm about sovereign citizen groups, too. They're called that because they refuse to recognize the authority of the government, by failing to pay taxes or register for driver's licenses.
But in the most extreme cases, sovereign citizens have lashed out at, and even killed, law enforcement officers who have pulled them over at traffic stops or for minor violations of the law. Two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., died that way in May 2010.
If nothing else, the Wisconsin shooting has reignited a conversation about whether police, Congress and reporters should pay as much attention to domestic threats as the ones coming from Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The slaying of six people at a Sikh temple by a gunman with ties to white supremacists has raised questions about the scope of domestic terrorism and what law enforcement is doing about it. Federal law enforcement cracked down on homegrown extremists after the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995, which killed 168 people. Here to talk about where we stand today is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Let's begin with the group of people who could be called white supremacists. The gunman in the Milwaukee case, of course, Wade Michael Page, has been described as having ties to white supremacist groups. Precisely who are they these days?
JOHNSON: Well, white supremacists generally believe in separation of the races. They're afraid of losing ground to minorities. And it's not clear, Renee, how many there are in the country, but the Anti-Defamation League has reported that Wade Page had ties to the Hammerskin Nation, one of the most violent and well-organized of these groups. That group started back in Dallas in the 1980s.
They pay dues, they operate in some ways like a regular old fraternity. They believe in loyalty and probationary periods, and when you cross these kinds of folks, you can pay a real price.
MONTAGNE: So domestic terrorism seems to be a threat that includes hate crimes, as the one in Milwaukee, but that's not all it encompasses.
JOHNSON: That's exactly right, Renee. There's no clear definition of what domestic terrorism means across the federal government, but what people tend to mean when they say domestic terrorism is an individual who's motivated by ideology within the United States, but has not ties to a foreign terrorist organization. By some measures, organizations like the New America Foundation have done studies and found that there may be as much violence attributed to domestic terrorist groups since 9-11 as to al-Qaida and those kinds of foreign extremist organizations.
MONTAGNE: But it does seem like these groups run the gamut. I mean you have the violent environmental underground group known as ELF, Earth Liberation Movement, all the way over to groups like the one Wade Michael Page would have been associated with, Hammerskin Nation.
JOHNSON: Absolutely, Renee. When the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms talk about domestic terrorism and hate groups in the U.S., they're not just talking about white supremacists or racist skinhead groups. They're also talking about old-time militias, people who try to patrol the Southwest border. They're also talking about sovereign citizens, which is a growing threat, according to federal law enforcement. These are groups of people who don't believe in the federal authority over them whatsoever. They don't want to pay taxes, and when they run into law enforcement, the results unfortunately can be very deadly for law enforcement personnel.
MONTAGNE: And Carrie, you mentioned the Anti-Defamation League and the New America Foundation, but what about federal agencies, the FBI, ATF - how much are they keeping track of these home-grown extremists?
JOHNSON: They are trying, Renee, as is the Department of Homeland Security, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies and releases an annual report on hate groups. But federal officials have to be very careful, because of course the First Amendment of the Constitution protects people's rights to speech and assembly, and there's a very fine line between what's permissible and what's not in terms of hate speech and action.
MONTAGNE: How big of a priority is this these days for law enforcement?
JOHNSON: Well, increasingly, analysts and people in communities that follow these hate groups feel like both for law enforcement and for people in our business, the media, these hate groups should get more attention, get more attention in terms of tracking and also more attention in terms of the violence they can cause. The problem, Renee, is that a lot of the people who turn their speech into action happen to be lone wolves or individuals who may be connected on the fringe to one of these movements. But it's very difficult to figure out when they're going to go off on their own and strike.
MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.