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Experts: Pentagon shooter, others strike symbols of 'power for the powerless'

By Joby Warrick and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A01

The setting was seemingly random: an outer gate at the Pentagon at evening rush hour. But John Patrick Bedell's violent rampage Thursday made him only the latest in the growing ranks of the disaffected and disturbed to take aim at a symbol of official Washington.

The shooting contained jarring echoes of other recent attacks, from last month's plane crash at an IRS building in Texas to the shooting last June of a museum guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District. Although the circumstances differ greatly, all were acts of rage by men who blamed their personal misfortunes on what they perceived to be sinister forces within the government.

All three also appear to have drawn ideological nourishment from the same well: online communities of like-minded people who validate and amplify extreme views. Today, more than in recent years, such communities are tapping into a broad undercurrent of anti-government discontent fueled by economic recession, joblessness and concern over the growing federal deficit, according to experts who have studied the phenomenon.

For Bedell and others like him, Washington and its institutions are an irresistible target -- the "ultimate symbol of power for the powerless," said Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University.

"We've always had individuals who strike out at the giant 'system' when they're feeling a sense of powerlessness and insignificance," said Post, author of "Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred," a book on extremist movements. "Now we see an alarming tendency in which these same individuals can find substantiation online for almost any point of view."

Researchers who track violent groups see Bedell's rampage as a distorted manifestation of the anti-Washington view that has driven the rise of right-wing militias. A report last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the number of such organizations jumped 244 percent since the election of President Obama, from 149 groups to 512, including 127 militias. At the same time, the number of extremist attacks in the United States that resulted in deaths has fallen since the 1990s.

White House officials declined to comment for the record about increased militia activity and noted that the two most recent incidents, at the Pentagon and in Austin, were perpetrated by men who had specific gripes with the government that appeared to be unrelated to the president personally.

But current and former officials privately acknowledge that the toxic political climate has heightened concerns about increased attacks. "Are we headed into a climate similar to Oklahoma City? It isn't clear," said one former administration official, referring to the 1995 attack on a federal building that killed 168 people.

A similar surge in militias and hate groups occurred during the mid-1990s, but this time the groups are interlinked to a much greater degree by the Web and mainstream radio and TV talk shows that echo many of the same viewpoints, said Mark Potok, author of the Southern Poverty Law Center report.

"People are bringing completely groundless conspiracy theories into the mainstream, and they are doing it for purely opportunistic reasons," Potok said. "To some, it may be only a ratings game, but the danger is that some people actually believe these tall tales and a few will actually act on them."

Yet the motivations for the attacks differ greatly. Joseph Stack, who flew a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, was inspired in part by the anti-tax movement. Bedell's anti-government views were more libertarian, and some were from the radical left, such as his belief that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a U.S. government conspiracy. Conservative bloggers Friday sought to label Bedell as leftist extremist, noting his online tirades against President George W. Bush's administration.

"Tea party" leaders reject the notion that their movement fosters violence. "It is extremely unfortunate that certain elements are trying to malign, distort and misrepresent a movement that supports fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets," said Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots.

Although concern about anti-government groups has grown, the number of ideologically motivated attacks by extremists that led to deaths in the United States has not.

Between 1990 and 2009, there were about 120 attacks in the United States by far-right extremists that led to deaths, according to a study funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The number of incidents has hovered around three per year since 2002, down from an average of eight annually from 1990 to 2001 and a peak of 16 in 1999, according to the U.S. Extremist Crime Data Base.

About 45 percent of incidents were motivated by white supremacist, neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant or other racist ideologies, and 15 percent by extreme anti-government views, the top two categories, according to researchers Joshua D. Freilich of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and Steven M. Chermak of Michigan State University.

Federal agencies discount attacks by "lone wolves" as terrorism. By law, the FBI, State Department and National Counterterrorism Center define terrorism as politically motivated violence committed by "subnational groups and clandestine agents."

U.S. counter-terrorism officials say lone attackers pursuing a personal political agenda pose a different kind of threat than organized domestic groups or international entities such as al-Qaeda.

White House and administration officials have stepped gingerly around the subject of politics and domestic attacks, mindful of how conservative groups condemned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano when her department issued a report on right-wing extremism April that said the return of military veterans could feed the emergence of terrorist groups.

Napolitano, who helped prosecute Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombings, apologized for the report, which was revised and reissued, and later clarified that the administration does not -- "nor will we ever -- monitor ideology or political beliefs."

In February, she testified that there has been an increase in "lone wolf type" attacks and more ideologically driven attacks from U.S. citizens who have become radicalized, including incidents involving al-Qaeda-trained operatives or sympathizers.

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Jerry Markon and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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