The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Little List

What’s the Difference between the Mentally Ill and Veterans in Hate Groups? 

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list.
Of social offenders who might well be under ground
And who never would be missed, who never would be missed.

W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado

The comic aria above from 1885 is sung by Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu.  Under danger of execution himself, Ko-Ko produces a list of people who could serve as ready scapegoats, due to their annoying personalities.  It all sounds silly and satirical but some of the misbegotten are on the list simply for being children, blacks, transvestites, and women intellectuals.   Oh, how art sometimes forecasts, rather than reflects, life.

Frazier Glenn Miller (a.k.a. Frazier Glenn Cross ) shot and killed three people in Overland Park, Kansas.  Although none of his victims turned out to be Jewish, Miller apparently targeted them because they were in the parking lots of two different Jewish buildings.  It was enough for federal authorities to charge him with hate crimes.

Frazier Glenn Miller was
known to engage in hate
speech and own guns for
many years

Miller is no stranger to hate groups.  He founded a Klan-affiliated organization in North Carolina in 1980 that eventually became the White Patriot Party.  He had multiple run-ins with the law for operating a paramilitary organization.  He was ultimately arrested with a “small arsenal” of stolen military weapons.  Once in prison, he began cooperating with prosecutors, testifying against other white supremacists in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Before any of that, Miller served in the U.S. army for twenty years, including two tours in Vietnam and service as a Green Beret, before he was discharged for distributing racist literature.

Last week, Kathleen Belew, a postdoctoral fellow in history at Northwestern University, wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times that stated Miller was not a unique case.  She pointed to research showing a high correlation for violence by former veterans that are members of far-right extremist hate groups.  She noted this correlation receives little attention from authorities.  “Would he have received greater scrutiny had he been a Muslim, a foreigner, not white, not a veteran?” she wondered.

The response from veterans groups was swift and condemning.

Yet the Department of Homeland Security issued a nine-page report in 2009 detailing the same potential threat.  “Military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists carrying out violent attacks.”  A 2008 F.B.I. report reached similar conclusions.  “Military experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement . . . [These groups] have attempted to increase their recruitment of current and former U.S. military personnel.”

The threat of violence from such groups is significant.  According to the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute, thirty-four people have been killed by right-wing extremists in the United States since the September 11, 2001 Islamic terror attacks.  Islamic jihadists killed twenty-three people over the same period.

In spite of this, some veterans, like many Americans, have been quick to call for solutions including national/state lists and closer tracking when gunmen have turned out to be mentally ill.  Consider this article from the May 2013 issue of The Economist.  “We don’t go around shooting people, the sick people do. They need to be fixed."  So said the gun-owning pensioner in the Korean War veteran's hat, demonstrating outside Connecticut's state capitol on March 11th.  He was holding a sign reading, 'Stop the Crazies—Step Up Enforcement of Current Laws'.”

Before denouncing all such lists as government conspiracy to take away Second Amendment rights, the NRA briefly supported this idea with mentally ill shooters.  “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed,” spokesman Wayne LaPierre told NBC’s Meet the Press in December 2012.  “We have no national database of these lunatics . . . We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that's got these monsters walking the streets.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner is on record in favor of confiscating guns owned by the mentally ill.  “There’s no question that those with mental health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to purchase weapons . . . [we need to] find a way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to get the mentally ill on a list.  “There are over fourteen thousand people in South Carolina who've been adjudicated a danger to themselves and others by a court, not in the system. That's what [we need] to fix.”

The problem is the lists and databases that exist today are notoriously difficult to update and maintain.  The F.B.I.’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has proven an arbitrary way of identifying who might be too dangerous to own a gun.  State databases, such as California’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS) suffer the same shortcomings.

Earlier this month, Doctor Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, retired Army colonel and psychiatrist who served in the Office of the Army Surgeon General, penned an op/ed piece on the CNN website, in which she advised caution and nuance before taking away the right to carry a weapon from soldiers suffering from “more common, milder form of mental illness.”  However, she adds this important caveat – “If [a soldier] had been determined to have been suffering from a severe enough form of mental illness to have posed a threat to himself or others – or had a history of violence – he should never have been allowed to remain in the Army in the first place, much less allowed to own a gun.”  [my emphasis]

“The fact of the matter is that little attention is paid by federal law enforcement to white supremacism as a trigger for domestic terrorism,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Slate magazine.

I am against profiling veterans as potential right-wing hate crime perpetrators (I do not agree the op/ed piece by Bellew did so).   I am also against such profiling of the mentally ill.  This most recent shooting by Miller, and the outrage it has generated against maintaining lists of veterans for tracking purposes, provides a caution in our zeal to do so for other groups.  All of them contain human beings, some of whom will be undeserving of their placement, will be missed, and deserve better.

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