After the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin a couple of months back and the supposed plot to kill President Obama exposed in Ludowici, Georgia, the world is once again fretting about the US Military being a breeding ground for well-armed, racist terrorists. One group who know more about the issue than most is the Southern Poverty Law Center, who – among a lot of other great work they've done over the years – managed to pressure the Pentagon to change their recruitment rules back in 2009. That led to Klan members and the like no longer being welcome – which seems like a sensible sort of rule to have.
We called Mark Potok at the SPLC to hear about their extended battle against extremism in the military and to see if the recent news from Stateside means that we should, actually, once again be shitting ourselves.
VICE: There’s been a flurry of news stories about extremists in the army lately, do you think there has been an increase in extremism in the US military?
Mark Potok: No. Extremism in the military has long been a recurring problem. In 1986, some active duty marines were training Klansmen near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They were members of a kind of Klan Militia called The White Patriot Party. We reported that to the Pentagon and it resulted in something of a strengthening of the regulations about extremists in the military.
Then, in December ’96, a black man and woman were walking down the street in Fayetteville, just outside Fort Bragg, and they were murdered by active duty neo-Nazis from the base. The Secretary of Defense again tightened regulations to what they claimed was a “zero tolerance” policy on extremists, but it wasn’t. Some officers felt that you might belong to a Klan or neo-Nazi organisation, but unless you were actively recruiting, attending meetings, burning crosses or whatever, you might not need to be kicked out.
Okay, how about more recently? Have things improved?
In 2006 we wrote a big story in Intelligence Report, our magazine, alleging that there were “thousands” of right-wing extremists in the US military. We quoted some defence department investigator saying, “There is Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad.”
And obviously that's not gonna have come from the locals.
No. At the time, military recruiters weren't meeting their quotas, so recruiters were issuing a lot of “moral waivers”. Some were allowing recruits in with extremist tattoos as long as they were covered by their uniforms.
What effect did your report have on the Army?
We went to the Pentagon on a few occasions and provided information about specific soldiers. There was a Facebook group for Nazis called New Saxon. We found scores of serving white supremacists posting on there. We got letters back from the Pentagon saying there was no problem at all.
So we presented the dossier to the Department of Homeland Security, and to [independent US Forces media outlet] Stars & Stripes who did a huge cover story on it. I think the Pentagon was embarrassed into tightening up the regulations, very quietly, in late 2009. Now, posting these kinds of things on a Facebook group is enough to get you thrown out, as is being a member of a right-wing extremist group.
So things have improved?
Yes. But honestly, we haven’t recently tried to gauge if there are still large numbers of extremists in the military. If you ask me: "Are there extremists in the military today?" then obviously yes, there are. Some people develop their views once they are in the military, as happened with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
So what do you make of this Georgia plot and headlines like “US Army guerrilla faction planned terror, Obama's assassination”?
It’s hard to say whether this is a left- or right-wing plot, or whether there were really any politics involved at all. The leader of this outfit sounds stark raving mad, they were allegedly going to poison the apple crop in the state of Washington and blow up a fountain? It’s hard to imagine any political group would be benefited by those kinds of attacks. I would say one would be inclined to dismiss the plot as the hallucinations of somebody on a bad LSD trip, except that there are two people dead and they acquired $87,000 of weapons and bomb components.
So is the Military a positive or negative thing in American life, do you think?
The Military has become quite a cohesive element in American life. There is no question that the highest rate of racial inter-marriage in the United States is within the military.
If you went back even seven or eight years, there was a lot of talk among radical right-wing groups about people getting into the military in order to acquire certain kinds of training. One neo-Nazi leader pushed people to go into the infantry so they could learn skills needed in the coming race war. We haven’t seen anything like that for five or six years. The white supremacist movement, although bigger than it was years ago, is very much in disarray.
Okay, let's hope the army doesn't teach them how to get their shit together. Thanks Mark!
More neo-Nazis being scumbags: