Stalking the lone wolf

Angry white men are on the prowl again, gunning down museum guards in Washington, D.C., and abortion doctors in Kansas. The Department of Homeland Security’s April report warned that conditions now are similar to the early 1990s, leading up to the second worst terrorist attack in American history: The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

This is serious and depressing news, the kind that makes me wonder what kind of country we live in, really, when electing any president other than a hard-right conservative leads to rising tides of deadly violence. (I would hardly call Clinton “left,” and Obama is showing himself to be clearly centrist in his policies.) How “free and fair” is that?

And do we have to call this home-grown brand of terrorism “lone wolf”?

First of all, this terminology romanticizes the violent fringe. “Lone wolf” has a cool, renegade connotation to it, one that appeals to the independent mentality of the far West. We Nevadans are particularly fond of the “Solitario Lobo” (as one Vegas blogger calls himself). Both Reno and Las Vegas have “Lone Wolf” streets, drives and circles. Pahrump has a Lone Wolf shooting club. And what happens when a bunch of “lone wolves” attend college? Why, they get together and form a team, call it the “Pack.”

Second, despite the fact that law enforcement and mainstream media use this term to officially describe “someone who commits violent and/or non-violent acts in support of some group, movement, or ideology, but does so alone, outside of any command structure,” the term was popularized by white supremacists in the 1990s. Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger explicitly promoted individualized acts of terror so as to confound law enforcement. So officially adopting the term “lone wolf” subtly legitimates this terrorist strategy.

But the most significant problem with the term “Lone Wolf” is that it is deeply misleading. As the Curtis and Metzger link demonstrates, “lone wolf” acts of terrorism only appear to be disconnected from broader groups and ideologies. In fact, they are deeply imbricated in networks that exchange inflammatory ideas, strategies, conspiracy theories and guns. And, as Paul Krugman pointed out recently, mainstream media adds fuel to the fire, with the libelous fulminations of the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh reaching hundreds of thousands of eyes and ears daily.

Of course, the vast majority of Fox News listeners are not going to act on the words of Beck—it is truly only the “deranged fringe” of folks who would turn to violence. And yes, freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our country’s constitutional liberties. But there is an old corollary to this right that in fact limits freedom of speech with the obligation to use that freedom responsibly. It is the famous dictum that the First Amendment does not entitle me to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. If the Homeland Security Report is true, then we have a theater packed with more than a few “lone wolves” these days. The media that floods our airwaves has a responsibility not to incite those sorts with inflammatory falsehoods.

And the rest of us have a responsibility too. Ideology aside, angry rhetoric gets ratings. We can change that. At the very least, we can turn these guys off. Change the channel. Go outside. Even more, we can—and should—stand up for moderation. Write to the companies that underwrite Fox News. Tell them why you are changing the channel. That kind of action gets real results.

This is important. American diplomats in both presidencies since 9/11 have been exhorting foreign countries to take control over their extremist fringe, the ones who promote international terrorism. We need to walk this talk ourselves—and the first step is to recognize the connecting links between our public discourse and the mounting (and irrational) anger that drives violence. No more “lone wolves.”

We all run in packs.