Not long ago, while reading the Best Sellers list in The New York Times Book Review, I had an Aha! Moment. I'd been wondering why recently there haven't been any books there that I felt drawn to read. Suddenly I understood: the majority of books selling well are about murder. Here are just a few of the ticklers following several titles: "A Swedish hacker becomes a murder suspect." An ex-cop "reunites with his childhood sweetheart to pursue a serial killer." A bounty hunter "tracks a celebrity chef's killer." A mayor in one book "pursues a killer" while in another it's an investigator in killer pursuit. Also, a "Texas sheriff investigates a mass murder." And that's just the hardcover list.
What is it about violence that so many Americans love? Why do we read books like that or flock to movies or T.V. programs rife with violence? More importantly, what does that incipient violence augur for our future in light of the unnerving behavior of some people at the now infamous town hall meetings? What is beneath the racist slurs that have been revealed since we elected a black president?
I asked my book group to reflect on these questions. Some members suggested I was making too much of it; after all, they said, there has always been racism and militancy in this country. It's part of our landscape. It doesn't mean that we're about to see a surge of political violence.
Others, like me, disagreed. We felt threatened by a sense of subterranean violence lurking in the (right) wings. The question, along with my own discomfort, continued to plague me, so I did a bit of research. What I found only confirmed my anxieties.
According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which tracks such trends, militia groups disgruntled with a poor economy and a liberal black president are regrouping across the country. One special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) told SPLC researchers that this is the most growth he's seen in more than a decade. "All it's lacking is a spark," he said.
Similar to the upswing in militia groups in the 1990s spawned by the incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas, right wing militias are "popping up in large numbers," says the Associate Press. At least 50 new groups have been identified in the past few months. Recruiting videos are garnering large audiences on You Tube. In one of them, a man holding a semi-automatic rifle which he is encouraging others to buy says, "Things are bad. They're going to get worse. Our country is in peril."
The Defense Journal reported in 1998 that there were 441 known militia groups active in the U.S. The Michigan Militia, to which Timothy McVeigh was connected, claimed a membership of more than 10,000 all over the state at that time. Other groups are prevalent in the Pacific Northwest and the Deep South. "Members of these ultra right-wing extremist militia do not fit the profile of the typical terrorist as Americans have seen them portrayed for decades," the Journal said. "They are police officers, sheriffs and deputies, attorneys, doctors, and other professional and business people, even members of the U.S. military."
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), historically "the final element forming the militia movement was a vast fascination with conspiracies [which were] easy to accept for people who believed that the federal government deliberately murdered people [at Ruby Ridge and Waco]and that door-to-door gun confiscation could begin any day. But the militia movement not only accepted the traditional conspiracy theories, it created a host of new ones; combined, they described a shadowy movement intent on creating a one-world socialist government no matter what the cost." The ADL goes on to say that many in these groups believed "the government was erecting concentration camps in which to place American dissenters." Sound chillingly familiar?
My limited research also revealed, alarmingly, that during the presidential campaign last November, racist attacks against the idea of a black president had grown more heated. Here are just some of the blog posts reported by SPLC at the time: "If we get a n-word President all you NIGGERS will think you've won and that the WHITE people will have to bow to you." One chilling post called for the assassination of Mr. Obama. Another said, "LOOK OUT n-word. THE KLAN IS GETTING BIGGER!" In Pennsylvania, a telephone canvasser was told to "Hang that darkie from a tree," while Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert Kennedy, was told "White people look out for white people," when she was campaigning.
If I could ask the late psychologist Carl Jung what was going on here he would probably say it represents our nation's "shadow self," that part of us that is the dark side of our psyches, the ignoble within us that we choose not to acknowledge, if we even know it's there. Others of lesser renown would probably just say I was making spurious, hyperbolic connections between a few books and a few crazies. I'd like to think they were right. But I have to admit I'm worried. People showing up with guns to events where ordinary folks simply want to express differing opinions scare me. Irrational, uninformed, frenzied mobs scare me too. So do politicians who fuel those flames.
Like the guy from BATF said, all it takes is a spark. In my view, too many among us -- even though they are in the minority -- are playing with fire.