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Soundings

Michael Knox Beran
Parsing the Lexicon
The Department of Homeland Security ignores the real causes of hatred.
Summer 2009

In March, the Department of Homeland Security distributed a document called the Domestic Extremism Lexicon to state and local police. A paper that would have done credit to a functionary under Russia’s old czarist regime, the Lexicon was soon recalled, but not before the Washington Times obtained a copy. Like its more publicized sister essay, the DHS’s Rightwing Extremism—which was released in April and which portrayed veterans as potential terrorists—the Lexicon has since been disowned by the Obama administration. Even so, it opens a window on official Washington’s attitude toward internal dissent.

In effect, the Lexicon defines an “extremist” as anyone whose opinions the administration happens not to share. Consider its definition of “rightwing extremism”:

A movement of rightwing groups or individuals who can be broadly divided into those who are primarily hate-oriented, and those who are mainly antigovernment and reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority. This term may also refer to rightwing extremist movements that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration. (also known as far right, extreme right)

In other words, if you happen to oppose illegal immigration or abortion, or if you are a Tenth Amendment sort of person who rejects federal nosiness in some areas, it is at least arguable that you are, under this definition, a “rightwing extremist” and thus a “threat” to the United States—the kind of person the police would do well to keep an eye on.

The problem here is the authors’ assumption that opinions that differ from their own are not merely “extreme” but very likely bound up with a propensity to throw bombs and, as such, deserve police scrutiny. The Lexicon does not distinguish, as U.S. constitutional law does, between people who, whatever their opinions, avoid violence and abide by the law and those who do not. Nor does it distinguish between those who call for violence and lawbreaking, but to little effect, and those who, in calling for these things, present (in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis) a “probability of serious danger to the State.” In ignoring these Constitutional Law 101 distinctions, the Lexicon grossly expands the kinds of activity that law enforcement should monitor. This is not yet the Thought Police, but it brings us a little closer to it.

So far from drawing the basic constitutional distinctions, the Lexicon leaves the impression that those who hold “extreme” opinions but do not call for violence and lawbreaking secretly sympathize with the bomb throwers. Thus the Lexicon defines “aboveground” extremist groups as those whose members “operate overtly and portray themselves as law-abiding,” even though they are really part of the conspiracy to topple the republic. The Lexicon even suggests that consumption of “alternative media” is a suspicious activity, since these media provide “a forum for interpretations of events and issues that differ radically from those presented in mass media products and outlets.” Readers of Instapundit, beware.

A final curiosity is the Lexicon’s implication that hatred is primarily a phenomenon of the Right. Hatred is a human emotion quite as much as love, and it is pretty evenly distributed across the political spectrum. There have been great haters on the right—Charles Maurras and the Action Française writers, for example—as well as on the left. When Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, quotes Lenin’s order to purge “the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects”—by which Lenin meant human beings—you cannot doubt that this man of the Left was possessed by the most intense hatreds.

Politics is, to some extent, the organized manipulation of hatred—the “madness of many,” Pope said, “for the gain of a few.” One of its guilty pleasures is undoubtedly the righteous outrage one feels when the other side has committed some stupidity. In poorly organized polities, these hatreds have not infrequently destroyed the state. The framers of the Constitution rejected the city-state model of governance precisely because it was ill-equipped to manage these enmities. In The Federalist, Madison and Hamilton argued that the “mutual jealousies, fears, hatreds, and injuries” of the ancient Greeks destroyed their commonwealths. In a larger, federal nation-state, they contended, the various petty hatreds would, to some extent, cancel one another out.

The Founders were mostly right about this, and, except during the Civil War, the Constitution has largely kept American hatreds within bounds. But the élan of the nation-state has had the effect, too, of overwhelming the older machinery that communities once used to dissipate the morbid passions of the citizenry. This machinery was, to be sure, imperfect. If it had been more efficient, Athens and Florence would still be in business as sovereign states today. But Aristotle was probably right when he argued that the civic traditions of the old communities helped purge passions that might otherwise become rancid.

The kinds of violence and hatred that the Lexicon’s authors rightly deplore are a consequence less of unorthodox or “extremist” thought (whether on the right or on the left) than of what David Brooks calls the “loss of community and social cohesion” in America. Hatred in its acute forms (mass killings and acts of homespun terror) and its milder manifestations (rudeness, loss of temper, road rage, checkout-counter rage) becomes an ever-larger problem in our civil life in part because, in our reliance on the problem-solving techniques of bureaucrats like the Lexicon’s authors, we have neglected the smaller forums that, even if they were politically ineffective, were socially useful. You find even now, in the communal rituals of less developed peoples, a sort of cathartic poetry that at once engages and softens the passions.

If fantasies of violence have become more common in American life, it is in part because we have lost the older communal safety valves, and have not yet found an adequate substitute for them. The violent behavior that the authors of the Lexicon seek to curb is a symptom not of the progress of heterodox opinion but of the decay of traditional civic forms. Our object ought to be to find a way to revive these forms and adapt them to modern needs, not to enlarge still more the state’s inquisitorial powers.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal.

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