In 1865, with the Confederacy in extremis, Jefferson Davis bludgeoned appalled rebel lawmakers into accepting Robert E. Lee's request to recruit black troops into Northern Virginia's depleted army ranks. One outraged Southern diarist accused Lee and Davis of surrendering "the crown jewel of our independence." A die-hard legislator argued that if blacks were allowed to fight alongside white soldiers, "then everything for which we have fought has been a lie."
A similar wave of revulsion and denial is currently roiling the netherworld of America's extreme right wing. We're not talking here about mere conservative Republicans. This is the lunatic right, for whom the election of Barack Obama was much more than a political defeat: It was a racial and existential nightmare. If he can succeed, if no catastrophe or deprivation of rights ensues, then these people have feared and plotted and hated in vain.
The United States' extreme right wing inhabits a shadow world, and the delusional nature of its core beliefs -- anti-Semitism, white supremacy and a rat's nest of economic and constitutional conspiracy theories -- makes tracing causality within its ranks a dicey proposition. Still, it's clear that something is stirring this peculiarly American cesspool in ways that haven't occurred since the mid-1990s, when an upsurge in activity among so-called militia groups culminated in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the deadliest terrorist incident on American soil until 9/11.
Rumors that the new Obama administration secretly planned to seize people's firearms surged through the Internet, which nowadays links extremists like a kind of fevered nervous system, and fueled a run on gun stores that stock assault weapons. In April, incidents of violence began to crop up: Three Pittsburgh police officers were killed by a 23-year-old man who feared his guns were about to be seized. The alleged killer frequented white-supremacist websites and frequently railed to his friends about "Jewish control" of the banks and media. Shortly afterward, a Florida National Guard soldier shot two deputy sheriffs to death, allegedly because he was "severely disturbed" by Obama's election. He too was a frequent reader of far-right-wing websites.
More recently, we've had the murder of a physician who performed abortions in Wichita, Kan., and the killing of a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by an 88-year-old Shoah denier who had self-published an anti-Semitic diatribe. Both accused shooters have ties to the extreme right that extend back decades, and both have been convicted of crimes -- the accused Kansas killer for possessing bomb-making materials; the alleged museum murderer for trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve. The man who allegedly killed the Holocaust Memorial guard once worked with the notorious Willis Carto, godfather of American anti-Semites and the last living link to Francis Parker Yockey, the sinister political theoretician who attempted to establish an international neo-fascist movement after World War II.
Private organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and, more recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center do heroic work tracking these people and their beliefs, which mutate constantly, like particularly virulent viruses.
The violent right, however, is a particularly difficult problem for law enforcement. Since the early 1990s, the movement's theorists have promulgated the concept of the "unorganized resistance" conducted by "lone wolves." It's a tactic meant to prevent believers from joining organizations that undercover law enforcement agents might infiltrate. Adherents are urged to keep to themselves, to use the Internet to inform themselves and to avoid rallies where they might be photographed. They're also urged to act on their own.
At the same time, American extremists have the benefit of our lax gun laws. In most countries, would-be terrorists need to join groups in order to secure arms. Here, they can buy them by the carload at a nearby gun store. The NRA is the lone wolves' best friend.
Two months ago, the Republican National Committee and many conservative commentators went into paroxysms of rage over a report by the Department of Homeland Security drawing attention to the potential terrorist threat of resurgent right-wing extremism. The department ended up apologizing for noting the extremist underground's attempts to recruit returning military personnel. (All three of the men involved in the Oklahoma City bombing met and developed their convictions while serving in the Army.) As the body count mounts, the department may want to reconsider that apology.