There’s a wicked little meme is going around and it seems to have infected a lot of people we’d have hoped were immune. Unfortunately this mental and linguistic virus is particularly virulent, and left untreated it has the potential to be lethal.
I’m referring, of course, to the “Lone Wolf” Flu. It’s precisely the sort of bug we’d expect to strike conservative talk show hosts across the nation – and it has – but lately it’s turned up in what were once considered to be some of the most objective and sanitary environments in the American media landscape.
I’ll stop torturing the metaphor now, lest it seem like I’m treating the subject too lightly. Instead, let’s examine a couple of news items that do considerable damage to the truth of our domestic terror problem. First, a June 13 AP story bylined by Devlin Barrett and Eileen Sullivan came across the wires with this headline: “Shootings show threat of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists.” And yesterday the Wall St. Journal joined in with “FBI Seeks to Target Lone Extremists,” which explained that “[l]one-wolf offenders continue to be of great concern to law enforcement.”
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the terrorists they’re characterizing as “lone wolves” are no such thing. Or, if they are, then the working definition of “lone wolf” is so badly broken that it’s beyond fixing. That phrase asks us to accept that killers like James von Brunn and Scott Roeder (and Eric Rudolph and Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith and James Kopp and Jim David Adkisson) get to the point of politically motivated homicide all by themselves. It asks us to accept that these people have no context, no community, no ideological fellow-travelers whipping them on.
Which is bunk. David Neiwert has written a couple of pieces since the latest fatal case cropped up in the Holocaust Museum several days ago. As he explained on Friday, “these are not ‘isolated incidents’.”
As Potok explains, the “lone wolf” concept was popularized in the late 1980s by an Aryan Nations leader named Louis Beam as an extension of his strategy of “leaderless resistance.” One white supremacist, a fellow named Alex Curtis, even went so far as to develop a “point system” for lone wolves.
A 2003 piece by Jessica Stern in Foreign Affairs described how even Al Qaeda was finding the concept useful. And she explains its origins:
The idea was popularized by Louis Beam, the self-described ambassador-at-large, staff propagandist, and “computer terrorist to the Chosen” for Aryan Nations, an American neo-Nazi group. Beam writes that hierarchical organization is extremely dangerous for insurgents, especially in “technologically advanced societies where electronic surveillance can often penetrate the structure, revealing its chain of command.” In leaderless organizations, however, “individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization.” Leaders do not issue orders or pay operatives; instead, they inspire small cells or individuals to take action on their own initiative.
The strategy was also inspired by at least one “lone wolf” shooter: Joseph Paul Franklin, a racist sniper who in the late 1970s and early 1980s killed as many as 20 people — mostly mixed-race couples — on a serial-murder spree, and attempted to assassinate both Vernon Jordan and Larry Flynt. (Franklin was also the inspiration for William Pierce’s Hunter, the follow-up novel to The Turner Diaries.)
As it turns out, we know a bit about these murderers, and the facts help us paint a picture of wolves who are anything but lonely.
- Buford was a member of the Aryan Nation.
- Smith was a member of the white supremacist Creativity Movement.
- Kopp was a member of the anti-abortionist Lambs of Christ.
- Rudolph isn’t tied to a specific hate group, but seems to have had ample support from a variety of sources.
- Adkisson was a fan of hate-talkers Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly.
- Roeder was either a member of or had ties to a variety of right-wing organizations, including the Montana Freemen, the Sovereign Citizen Movement, the Army of God and Operation Rescue.
Like all these other “lone wolves,” von Brunn was hardly an island, either.
The conclusion we’ve all hopefully reached about “lone wolf” terrorists is this: just because the rest of the pack isn’t physically present doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
The assassins themselves are ratting you out. They’re telling us, straight up, that they were inspired to act by the hate radio talkers that you empowered — one of whom is now the de facto head of the Republican party. They got it from media outlets owned by your biggest donors. They got it from bloggers who receive daily talking points faxed in from the GOP. They got it from activists representing causes that would have never become causes in the first place if the issues hadn’t been politically expedient for you.
Beyond that: You’ve already admitted your own complicity. When the Department of Homeland Security expressed their worries about right- wing extremist violence last April, practically every conservative pundit in the country went into a righteous fit. DHS never named anyone directly, so it was astonishing how many of you on the right were so quick to step up and claim that that memo was slandering you, personally and collectively. Since you were so eager to claim that that memo was all about you, now that the violence has come to pass, we’re well justified in holding you to that.
The Press as Typhoid Mary
Back to the AP story, which unfortunately provides a warm, nutrient-rich pool in which the “lone wolf” meme can replicate with abandon. In a number of respects, it might be argued that the reporters and editors toe the journalistic line in ways that are more than defensible. The term is embedded in quotation marks in the header and in the first occurence in the body of the story. They interview and dutifully quote experts, and we have no reason to believe that FBI officials have any particular ideological axe to grind with their use of the term.
The WSJ story, authored by Gary Fields and Evan Perez, differs from the AP article primarily in the fact that it doesn’t even feel a need for quotation marks.
Despite the insight each story provides into the FBI’s attempts to head off these kinds of “isolated” attacks, I find myself wanting more in the way of perspective from the reporters. A lot more. As the FBI frames the issue, a “lone wolf” crime is apparently defined in opposition to one “planned by a trained terrorist network.” This taxonomy is probably useful in some contexts, but here it lacks a certain … granularity. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman quoted by the AP privileges the term.
In the end, the reader comes away with the idea that these killers are, as a matter of fact, solitary agents. Both agencies lend credence to this misinformation by failing to challenge the underlying factual inaccuracy, and in doing so they inadvertently serve the cause of the “leaderless resistance.“ When our most reliable news institutions say that these incidents are isolated, that they’re not part of a larger movement, that there’s no collective organization behind the attacks, it provides cover for a thriving, blood-thirsty community of wolves.
Put a little more aggressively, we might argue that such weak reportage provides aid and comfort for terrorists. No, that’s not a terribly civil accusation, and I’m certainly not arguing that Fields, Perez, Barrett, Sullivan or their editors are in some way intending to promote or enable the actions of these freak-right loons. Nonetheless, their failure to fully and clearly identify the context in which these actions occurred has an effect – intended or not.
If their hesitance to pull that particular trigger is somehow related to a concern over the appearance of bias (far more likely with the AP than the WSJ, I’d think), I’d offer two responses. First, the Homeland Security report that stressed the threat of homegrown right-wing terror was generated by the Bush Administration. Second, “balance” is never an excuse to sidestep the truth.
If we’re going to effectively address the causes of our recent domestic terror epidemic the Lone Wolf Flu must be eradicated. Step one: our mainstream media has to stop spreading the virus.