Blogs > Cliopatria > Sudden Whackjob Syndrome

Jun 17, 2009 3:16 pm

Sudden Whackjob Syndrome

Three years ago, a Muslim student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill drove an SUV into a crowd of pedestrians, injuring nine people. Leading a silly chorus, Daniel Pipes pronounced the incident an example of"Sudden Jihad Syndrome," repeating his post-9/11 warning:"Individual Islamists may appear law-abiding and reasonable, but they are part of a totalitarian movement, and as such, all must be considered potential killers."

Every act of violence by any Muslim became part of a pattern of massive (totalitarian!) brutality; add a Muslim, and yesterday's shoving match over the last Xbox in the Wal-Mart became today's sudden explosion of terrorism.

Last week, the journalist Bonnie Erbe pulled her own Daniel Pipes routine, in a blog post at the U.S. News and World Report titled,"Round Up Hate-Promoters Now, Before Any More Holocaust Museum Attacks." (The post concludes with a call to action that mirrors the headline:"Isn't it time we started rounding up promoters of hate before they kill?") (Via Radley Balko; see also.)

Erbe's call to round up right-wing extremists before they have a chance to do anything echoes an important piece of history examined recently in Robert H. Churchill's remarkable book, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement (and less recently by Leo Ribuffo):

Churchill writes that New Deal progressives, offended and frightened by vitriolic far-right opposition to the New Deal, launched "a systematic campaign of public condemnation and state repression." Private liberal organizations "initiated the collection of dossiers on leading figures of the Far Right," while the FDR administration and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI undertook an effort that led to the conviction of dozens of right-wing figures on sedition charges. (Hoover even maintained a "custodial detention index" of right-wing figures.)

Attacking the political right, the political left sawed the floor out from under its own feet. Since "most of those prosecuted during the Brown Scare had not gone beyond the realm of political speech," Churchill concludes, " their core these cases involved the suppression of far right political philosophy and the denial of the right of free speech...The institutions and rhetorical tactics of the Brown Scare would come back to haunt the Left after World War II, as a resurgent Republican Party launched a second Red Scare under the leadership of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon."

This description of the roots of the second Red Scare arguably places too many of those roots in one place, but the larger point is sound: the acceptance of repressive premises has a long tail. Embracing the repression of far-right speech, Churchill writes, New Deal liberals "accepted Americanism's exclusionary vision of a body politic to which some Americans must be denied entry."

We've already had enough of that, lately.

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Chris Bray - 6/18/2009

That's a good yes, but, and I don't disagree -- you could probably start before the First Red Scare, too. The Brown Scare is significant because it marked the embrace, on the left, of right-wing premises. But it's surely not the birthplace of those premises.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/17/2009

Largely in agreement, but must quibble slightly: Wouldn't it make more sense to put the origin of the cycle at the First Red Scare and see the "Brown Scare" as an echo of that? Or is it more important, in this instance, to highlight the largely forgotten liberal side of the equation?

More broadly, there's a long history of political purges in democracies, going back at least to the Roman Republic. My hypothesis is that the frequency of purges rise more or less as a function of the organization level of a state (Chinese premodern purges were pretty vicious at times) and the sense of crisis within that state.