Friday, June 12, 2009

Quick Reaction to Rise of Extremism

There have been a series of pieces in NY Times and elsewhere reacting to the shootings of the noted Abortion Doctor and at the Holocaust museum. My first thought about these events--that they are seen as criminal acts, rather than acts of dissent/protest/rebellion/etc. My students are studying militia strategies, when terrorists can support from the public, when some minorities are targeted for violence, and more. So, my first thought is to distinguish the events in the US from the subjects of my students. Why? Because successful repression of rebels involves the perception of violent acts as criminal ones, not political ones. While there may be a bit of dissensus on the abortion doctor killings, there is really little doubt that most Americans will view the shooter at the Holocaust museum as a crazy thug and not the martyr of a political movement. Timothy McVeigh is not a rebel but a dead criminal. These distinctions are meaningful.

What else is going on here? Right-wing extremism,which was considered rising by Homeland Security in April, is apparently rising in reaction to an African-American president, but we should also take seriously the economy--people have less to lose now and more need to blame. One of my students, Suranjan Weeraratne has studied scapegoatability--what causes some minorities to be targeted at some times and places and not others. His work is on Indonesia in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 1998. So, the parallels are pretty clear. We do have leaders in the US (well, Republicans anyway) spewing venom towards immigrants and perhaps other targets, but this has not led to riots like it did in some parts of Indonesia. But one of the aspects of Suranjan's work is especially useful here--he finds violence is more likely in areas where there are prominent religious and ethnic institutions that serve as focal points for collective action [He is defending his dissertation this summer, so you should hire him in the fall]. One could suggest that the Holocaust museum is similar to the institutions in Indonesia. This does not mean we should not create such institutions, even if they focus anger and resentment. But that these institutions should be prepared, and, indeed, it seems to be the case that the guards did their jobs very well, even at the cost of one guard's life.

And, ironically, I am off to Berlin, where anti-semitism was so thoroughly de-legitimized by Hitler's efforts.

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