Skip to main content

What drives anti-government extremists

By Brian Levin
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Police and firefighters on the scene of the shooting at a Las Vegas Walmart, on Sunday, June 8. Two gunmen shot and killed two police officers eating lunch and then killed a third person at the Walmart. The gunmen then killed themselves. Police and firefighters on the scene of the shooting at a Las Vegas Walmart, on Sunday, June 8. Two gunmen shot and killed two police officers eating lunch and then killed a third person at the Walmart. The gunmen then killed themselves.
HIDE CAPTION
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
Shootings in Las Vegas
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brian Levin: Las Vegas killings show anti-government extremists remain a threat
  • He says pendulum has swung from violent left-wing to right-wing militants
  • Levin: Police are often the target because of their visibility as a symbol of government
  • He says commentators need to be careful that their rhetoric doesn't inspire fanatics

Editor's note: Brian Levin is a professor of criminal justice and director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Levin, a former New York City police officer, is a graduate of Stanford Law School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The horrendous ambush assassination of two Las Vegas police officers at a pizzeria and the killing of a good Samaritan by a violent young married couple with anti-government hatred again show that domestic extremists on the fringes remain a continuing threat in America.

In fact, in recent weeks the Department of Justice reconstituted a law enforcement working group devoted to addressing right-wing extremism.

One of Sunday's killers, who was reportedly removed by other militia protesters from the Bundy ranch standoff earlier this spring, draped an officer's body with a yellow Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me Flag," a swastika and a note about "revolution."

Brian Levin
Brian Levin

In the 1970s, a significant violent threat came from small, tight-knit groups of the "revolutionary left" such as the Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army as well as the anti-police Black Liberation Army whose assassination sprees left 13 officers dead across the nation.

Since the early 1980s, however, the domestic extremism threat pendulum has swung right, not only to white supremacists, but to anti-government "Patriot" adherents who sometimes, but not always, embrace hard-core racial prejudice and violence.

Today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these groups number more than 1,000. The left-wing extremist groups of the 1970s operated as small, yet highly structured, segregated offshoots of the nonviolent civil rights and anti-war community.

Who were the Las Vegas killers?

Unlike the more consistently planned bombings and premeditated assassinations of the 1970s left, right-wing violence today runs the gamut from Sunday's ambush to more spontaneous killings that follow car stops or police calls about relatively mundane disputes. In 2010, two West Memphis, Arkansas, police officers were killed by anti-government extremists during a routine car stop, and in 2009 three Pittsburgh officers died during a domestic disturbance call at the home of a gun-obsessed neo-Nazi.

Today's violent right-wing extremists often operate on the fringes of existing groups or social networks, where they gain inspiration and a belief system in lieu of directives or an actual rank or "membership" card. While many of these favored groups are extremist, some are not.

Jerad Milller, who police said carried out the Las Vegas attack with his wife, Amanda, reportedly went to the Bundy ranch militia protests and even posted a picture of a meeting he had with an extremist conspiracist on his Web page. He also used a flag popular with the right at the crime scene and "liked" various mainstream political groups such as the National Rifle Association, whose executive vice president called federal agents "jack-booted thugs" during the heyday of the 1990s militia movement, on his Facebook page. His posted manifesto contains overheated versions of themes that could fit into a mainstream political speech, with its vow to fight tyranny.

To be sure, mainstream groups in politics countenance reform, not murder, but the often-shrill rhetoric, conspiracy theories and innuendo they sometimes promote may have consequences. Alex Jones, a popular radio personality of the far right, went so far as to accuse the federal government of staging the Las Vegas incident for political gain.

Members of law enforcement are among the most visible and active civic officials to interact directly with the public, so their symbolism and proximity make them targets for those who hate and loathe the government. Moreover, many police interactions involve emotionally tense situations, making law enforcement susceptible not only to premeditated violence but spontaneous attacks as well.

Extremists, unlike political players, have opted out of accepting the peaceful processes and institutions of our pluralistic democracy. The Las Vegas killers had not only targeted officers as a tyrannical enemy but may have planned an attack on a courthouse as well.

When we engage in political debate, we have to be mindful that the embers of dissatisfaction with government can fly and land on violent and sometimes unstable people who rely on conspiracy theories as an anesthetic for either personal failures or emotional frustrations.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT