By James Tracy
The Southern Poverty Law Center is advising the US government of the alleged “domestic terror threat” posed by political conservatives, “conspiracy theorists,” and others skeptical of their government’s policies and behavior. A March 5, 2012 letter to the US Departments of Justice and Homeland Security points to the group’s recent report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism.” The study uses SPLC data to point to an almost one thousand percent upsurge in “militias and radical antigovernment groups … from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.”
The publicity has an ominous historical precedent. In October 1994 the SPLC’s “KlanWatch” program issued a similar warning to the federal government on the purported threat of militias and prompted a steady drumbeat of US newspaper reports. Six months later on April 19, 1995 the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Such coverage set the national stage for the “domestic security threat” that would crystallize in Timothy McVeigh and subdue the growth of an increasingly popular movement. Shortly after the bombing SPLC director Morris Dees delivered the organization’s oft-repeated claim of how there had been a “gradual infiltration” of citizen militias “by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.”
Twenty years later the organization continues to exercise significant credibility, particularly among major press outlets that unquestioningly accept its claims. Yet it casts such a wide net in the effort to catalog supposedly dangerous organizations that even groups such as “We Are Change”–a national association of activists whose main offense is insisting upon a genuine investigation into 9/11–is classified as a “hate group” and placed alongside a cartoonish array of white supremacist and neo-Nazi outfits.
When the SPLC’s “The Patriot Movement Explodes” was released in March 2012 the New York Times carried a piece promoting the report by Times‘ Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson. When I contacted Severson to assess her understanding of the paper’s methodology she referred me to SPLC “Senior Research Fellow” Mark Potok. I felt that an explanation of such methods and contact information for the purportedly dangerous groups listed on the “Hate Map” were especially important since independent observes could not touch base with many listed groups to confirm their existence, inquire upon their motivations to “hate,” and thereby confirm the study’s findings. “We don’t make any special effort to collect that kind of information,” Potok wrote, “although we do sometimes have it … The groups for which we do not give a location beyond the state are groups that report only a ‘statewide’ chapter without giving any location. Generally, we know they’re active, but can’t prove exactly where they’re headquartered.”
Potok further explained how some entities were included merely based on “Internet activities, including pages, forums, and, often, email groups.” Given the subjective criteria for what constitutes “hate” and the nontransparent ways in which the SPLC conducts its inquiries, just about any loose affiliation leaving some traces on the web may be designated as exhibiting “hate” and thus qualify for the list.