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The Terrorist Threat: Right-Wing Radicals and the Eliminationist Mindset

Understanding the dangerous worldview that led to the murder of an innocent doctor and an attack at the Holocaust Museum.

In April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report ( PDF) warning that the shifting political climate and tanking economy were spurring a resurgence of violent right-wing extremism (known as "terrorism" when applied to those holding other political views) in the United States.

At the time, a number of right-wing commentators lambasted the report as a politically motivated attack on mainstream conservatism rather than what it was: an early warning on the dangers posed by a violent, fringe minority within their movement. Under pressure from GOP lawmakers, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano apologized for the report.

But in the short weeks since, the department's warnings have proved prescient. An abortion provider who had been a frequent target of Fox News' bloviator Bill O'Reilly was gunned down during a church service in Kansas; a mentally disturbed man who believed the "tea-bagging" movement's contention that the Obama administration is destroying the American economy -- and who reportedly owned a number of firearms -- withdrew $85,000 from his bank account, said he was part of a plot to assassinate the president and disappeared (he was later captured in Las Vegas); and this week, a white supremacist who was deeply steeped in far-right conspiracism entered the U.S. Holocaust Museum and opened fire, killing a guard before being shot and wounded by security personnel.

The three incidents share a common feature: All of these men thought they were serving a higher moral purpose, that is, defending their country from an insidious "enemy within" as defined by the far right -- a "baby-killer," the Jews who secretly control the world and a president who's been accused of being a Manchurian Candidate-style foreign agent bent on nothing less than the destruction of the American Way.

David Neiwert, a veteran journalist who has covered violent right-wing groups for years, calls the worldview that informs this twisted sense of moral purpose "eliminationism." It's the belief that one's political opponents are not just wrongheaded, misinformed or even acting in bad faith. Eliminationism holds that they are a cancer on the body politic that must be excised -- either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination -- in order to protect the purity of the nation.

As eliminationist rhetoric becomes increasingly mainstream within the American right -- fueled in large part by the wildly overheated discourse found on conservative blogs and talk radio -- Neiwert's new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right , could not have come at a more important time. In it, Neiwert painstakingly details how the rise in eliminationism is a very real threat and points to the dangers of dismissing extreme rhetoric as merely a form of "entertainment."

AlterNet recently caught up with Neiwert in Washington to discuss this troubling trend.

Joshua Holland: There is a lot of ugly discourse in this country, and there always has been. What makes eliminationist rhetoric different from the kind of run-of-the-mill nasty stuff that we see on all sides of the political spectrum?

David Neiwert: Right -- there is a lot of hateful rhetoric that floats around on both sides. What's unique about eliminationist rhetoric is that it talks about eliminating whole blocs of people from the body politic, whereas most of the hateful rhetoric, in the case of people on the left, is directed at an individual -- George Bush or Dick Cheney and various characters on the right. That's one of the key differences -- when right-wing people talk hatefully, it often is directed at entire groups of people: Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians or liberals.

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