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Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America

Heavily armed SWAT teams are increasingly used for such small tasks as raiding poker games and trying to stop underage drinking. How did we get here?

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Unfortunately, consistent voices like Greenhut’s have been rare. Partisan reaction to aggressive police actions against opponents tends to fall somewhere between indifference and schadenfreude.

After the December 2012 shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut put the issue of gun control back into the political discourse, some progressives again dredged up the right’s criticism of the ATF in the early 1990s. In one lengthy segment, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow aired old footage from Waco and Ruby Ridge while making some tenuous connections between gun rights politicians and activists and Weaver, McVeigh, and Koresh. She referred to a “conspiracy-driven corner of the gun world’s paranoia about federal agents,” without paying much heed to the fact that the ATF was inflicting the same sort of abuse on suspected gun offenders that Maddow herself has decried when used against suspected undocumented immigrants or Occupy protesters. More tellingly, Maddow added that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to give more power to the ATF based only on the politics of the people opposed to doing so. “Sometimes the character of the opposition defines why something ought to be the most politically viable thing in the world,” she said.

But even before Newtown, progressives have been advocating for the use of more government force against political factions they find unsavory. In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security issued a controversial report on what the author—DHS analyst Daryl Johnson—called a resurgence of right-wing extremism and the threat it posed to domestic security. The report was widely criticized on the right and was eventually criticized and revoked by DHS secretary Janet Napolitano. But after a spate of mass killings in the following years by assailants with political views that in some cases could loosely be characterized as right-wing, Johnson became something of a progressive hero. Most of the incidents involved clearly mentally ill attackers whose politics were all over the place. Even Johnson acknowledged that the incident most in line with his thesis—the massacre at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page—was the work of a “lone wolf” attacker and likely would not have been prevented by the recommendations in his report.

Still, he was celebrated on the left. The progressive advocacy group Media Matters declared him “vindicated.” Similar sentiment popped up on progressive outlets like ThinkProgress, Salon, Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC blog, and Democracy Now.

In truth, attacks by groups on the fringes of the right wing have actually dropped in recent years, despite some claims that they’ve increased in response to the election of a black president. Attacks from groups on the fringes of the left wing are in decline too, as are alleged attempted terrorist attacks by fringe Muslim groups.

In a 2012 interview with the Idaho Spokesman Review, Johnson showed why it may not have been such a great idea for progressives to embrace him simply because he wanted to shut down opinions they found distasteful. Johnson was interviewed for an article on the twentieth anniversary of the Ruby Ridge fiasco, and he took one step further Rachel Maddow’s idea of supporting government force simply because you don’t like the factions opposing it. Johnson in fact suggested that merely having concerns about police militarization is a worry only borne by extremists. In fact, he appeared to have suggested that even recognizing that militarization is happening is an indication of fringe extremism.

“For American extremists, the siege at Ruby Ridge symbolizes the ‘militarized police state,’” said Johnson. The US government, through its Department of Homeland Security in particular, he said, “has unintentionally fostered, and even solidified, Orwellian conspiracies concerning an overzealous, oppressive federal government and its perceived willingness to kill to ensure citizen compliance. . . . In the minds of modern-day extremists, [Homeland Security] has enhanced the lethal capability of many underfunded, small-town police forces through its grant programs.” Using federal grants, state and local law enforcement agencies have been able to buy expensive equipment and training that are “commonly associated with the military,” he said, adding that “extremists view such a security buildup as a continuation of the Ruby Ridge legacy.” That legacy is a continuing drumbeat for extremists and white supremacists who recruit with the message of “big government versus the little guy” and “the government set me up.” These extremist ideas continue as messages and even recruiting themes among various radical groups in the United States, Johnson said.

 
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