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Heidi Beirich: History of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States

Heidi Beirich: History of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States
<v ->Hi there.</v> I’m Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. I’m gonna talk a little bit today about the history of domestic terrorism in the United States. You know, most people who saw the Capitol riot on January 6th saw a very clear example of how right-wing extremists have mobilized and grown into a force that was able to engage in an insurrection actually on January 6th of 2021. But this problem with right-wing extremism goes far, far further back into our past. I mean, if we could talk about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the end of the civil war in the 1920s.
There were some 4 million Klansmen across the United States, but in the modern era, what we’re really concerned about is the rise of right-wing extremism that started in the 1990s. Most of us will think of Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building, as emblematic of this problem that had been prior to 911 the largest domestic terrorist attack in this country when you consider how many people were killed there. Throughout the 1990s, we saw the growth of militia groups. When I was at Southern Poverty Law Center, they had counted 858 of those groups in 1996. That was actually a year after the McVeigh bombing.
That was an era in which hate groups were growing, and militias were growing somewhat similar to today but not in the numbers that we consider and we’ve seen in recent the last four years. During that time period, there were several things done by the federal government to counter the rising extremist threat. After that McVeigh bombing, the federal government actually put in place a monthly meeting of US Attorneys to tackle this specific issue. There was also legislation passed to deal with things like bomb making materials, on the internet and certain kinds of weapons were banned as a result of that. And there was an whole-scale crackdown by the federal government on extremist right-wing groups.
So, there was a whole of government approach that occurred in the late 1990s to deal with the metastasizing threat of right-wing extremism. But then, 911 happened. The group of attorneys, US Attorneys who would meet every month, were actually supposed to meet on 911 to continue the fight against domestic terrorism. Of course they didn’t meet on 911, and at that moment, our country went through a huge shift in terms of how it considered and looked at terrorism. Terrorism was no longer white supremacy and militia groups which had been the focus in the prior decade. There was a whole shift of the government to focusing on Islamic extremism for obvious reasons having to do with 911.
In fact, the FBI completely changed its mandate to focus on the threat of that kind of terrorism. And as a result of that, for about the next two decades, we took our eye off the ball on white supremacy. Regardless of who was in power, which kind of administration we had, the focus had shifted irreparably away from those issues. And so, what began at that time was the slow growth of white supremacist hate groups and militias over time without any kind of federal government response.

A View of Right-Wing Extremism in the U.S.

In this step, Heidi discusses the rise of right-wing extremism in the 1990s in the United States. She talks about her previous work with the Southern Poverty Law Center in understanding the upward trajectory of far-right militia groups and designated hate groups in the U.S. after the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing. She also describes the shift in the U.S. focus from 1990s-era domestic terrorism to a post September 11th brand of international terrorism.

What surprised you or stood out from Heidi’s segment? Were you aware of the shift from a domestic terrorism focus in the United States to Islamic extremism after September 11, 2001, as Heidi describes in her segment? What memories do you have about this era in the United States?

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