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With two mass shootings in a 12-hour period in which over 39 people were killed and many injured, concern is being expressed that we should do something to stop such things from happening again. The Democrat candidates, eager to link President Trump to these vile crimes, blame his rhetoric and “white nationalists.” People on all sides of the political spectrum now call for enhanced FBI investigation of “white nationalists.”
I have some experience with white nationalist groups having investigated the KKK and other extremist groups early in my FBI career. These terrible murders, however, have been lone wolf type attacks involving one or two killers. They are not events planned by domestic terror groups that can be interdicted by law enforcement.
If these mass murders were actually being planned or perpetrated by “white nationalist” terror groups, the FBI would know exactly what to do about it. The major extremist group of the 1950s and 1960s, the KKK, was absolutely destroyed by the FBI. The Klan was penetrated by informants, electronic surveillance, prosecutions, and unrelenting FBI investigation. Membership declined substantially and the Klan became ineffectual as a terrorist organization.
By the mid-1970s, the Klan couldn’t bring off a significant action without finding its members quickly charged, arrested, and convicted. I was working in Detroit when, a few days after the 1971 dynamiting of buses parked in a Pontiac, MI, school lot, our counter-terrorism squad identified and arrested the five Klan members responsible. They were convicted in federal court and served prison sentences. Following the arrests and vigorous investigation by the FBI, the Michigan Klan broke up.
Of course, the FBI should investigate any groups, right or left, that are engaged in criminal acts but investigation of “white nationalist” groups won’t do much to stop horrendous murders that are being done by mentally-ill individuals who are acting alone. If investigation of groups wouldn’t be effective, then what about investigating individuals who hold “white nationalist” views? If that is what is being advocated, I have some problems with it.
Investigating citizens for their political views is a bad business. While law enforcement should investigate anyone or any group that plans or undertakes violence or criminal acts in pursuit of political views, investigation of non-violent American citizens for their odd, strange, or even racist political ideas is a different matter. Besides, who gets to define what is odd, strange, or racist?
The motives of these mass murderers vary. Apparently, the two most recent differ – the El Paso murderer was an extremist on the right and the Dayton murderer an extremist on the left. If we are to investigate citizens for their political views, we should include those on the left as well as the right.
We should remember that political views change and the politicians who advocate for these investigations today may not be there when views change. If you doubt this, look to the past. Investigation of communists was quite popular throughout the country in the 1950s. There was even a popular television show (I Led Three Lives) in which the hero was an FBI informer reporting on the Communist Party. FBI Director Hoover regarded communism as a serious threat and was happy to pursue communists. The same politicians who supported, funded, and approved investigation of communists were nowhere around in 1975 when national sentiments changed and the Senate Church Committee and the House Judiciary Committee blasted the FBI’s domestic intelligence activities. The FBI shouldn’t look to politicians for support when the national mood changes.
The thing all these killers shared wasn’t ideology, it was serious mental illness. We should focus on mental health issues and keep the investigators out of politics.