When the Department of Homeland Security released a cautiously worded report on the potential dangers of right-wing extremism last April, the talk-radio wingnuts and certain Republican lawmakers went into spasms of indignation. Clearly, that report — an innocuous nine-page document commissioned by the previous Republican administration — had been conjured up by White House Democrats to smear conservatives.
"There is not one instance they can cite as evidence where any of these right-wing groups have done anything," Rush Limbaugh told his listeners.
A year later, we know that Limbaugh was wrong (again). Up in northern Michigan, the Hutaree militants were collecting weapons and ammunition and allegedly plotting the assassination of law enforcement officers with the same kind of roadside bombs and projectiles used by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is that those groups claim to be Muslim; the violent extremists over here prefer to be known as Christian.
We also know that the recent outbreak of window smashing against Democrats in the aftermath of the passage of health-care reform can be traced to a militia activist from Alabama. He justified urging those attacks on his website as a warning that America is on the brink of mass violence. It is a theme he has promoted for more than a decade, dating back to the militia movement of the Clinton years, when he authored a pamphlet titled "Strategy and Tactics for a Militia Civil War."
Now, nobody is likely to apologize to Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, the victim of a smear by those who claimed she was trying to intimidate those who call themselves conservative. But while the Hutaree conspiracy charges are very troubling, as was the window-smashing spree, there are still more disturbing signals coming from the far right.
One of the men arrested in the Hutaree group used the screen name "Pale Horse" when he posted material on militia websites. Having attached himself to the Hutaree and other militia outfits, he apparently was obsessed with gruesome child murders and serial killing. Under his pseudonym, Pale Horse circulated a YouTube video last year that advocated an armed militia march on Washington:
"A peaceful demonstration of at least a million — hey, if we can get 10 million, even better — but at least one million armed militia men marching on Washington. A peaceful demonstration. No shooting, no one gets hurt. Just a demonstration. The only difference from any typical demonstration is we will all be armed."
Now it appears Pale Horse's plan — or something very similar — may actually occur on April 19th, the anniversary of the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord and, perhaps not coincidentally, of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh.
Militia websites are currently promoting a "restore the Constitution rally" at two locations in northern Virginia where the marchers can legally carry firearms. They plan to "muster" at Fort Hunt National Park, about 12 miles south of the nation's capital, and then travel in "small convoys" to a park near Reagan National Airport, just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. This will let them "step up to the edge" with their weapons, as the organizers put it.
Although the militia marchers are acting within their rights, their intentions seem not terribly far from those of the window smashers. Among them, there may well be groups and lone nuts whose seditious plans resemble those of the Hutaree. As the militias enact Pale Horse's fantasy, they appear determined to intimidate every American who disagrees with their interpretation of the Constitution and their rancorous hatred of the president and the Democratic Party.
So, perhaps Napolitano can take some satisfaction from the fresh evidence that her critics were wrong and that the report on right-wing extremism was, if anything, too mild. Neither she nor any other official in government should be deterred from exposing the extremists who threaten public security and constitutional democracy, regardless of ideology.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.