Homeland Security: Lone wolves are America's biggest danger
Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been warning for nearly two years that "lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States."
That assessment came in an April 2009 report from the department that is charged with keeping America safe. Some experts said this week that certain talk show hosts, politicians and political pundits are contributing to the problem.
"There is a pressing need to change the tenor of public debate from shouts and slurs to something more reasoned," Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, Ala., wrote Monday in an editorial on the group's website. "The tragedy in Tucson this weekend reminds us that it's a call that politicians and pundits would do well to heed."
A 22-year-old man described as mentally unbalanced shot 14 people Saturday, killing six, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson.
The law center is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. The organization actively tracks hate groups and hate speech and is the leading expert on the subject in the U.S.
Cohen specifically mentioned:
Sharron Angle, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Nevada last year, and her talk about using "second amendment remedies" to change the course of this country.
The "shameless" Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, who "feeds the lunatic fringe with talk of the government herding Americans into FEMA concentration camps."
GOP vice-presidential nominee and political pundit Sarah Palin using phrases such as "don't retreat, reload" and showing pictures during the fall election of crosshairs covering a map of Giffords' district.
"The problem is the incendiary rhetoric, with its violence-laced metaphors, and the spinning of paranoid fantasies," Cohen said. "The problem is the non-stop demonization one hears from political opportunists trolling for votes and their media allies trolling for ratings."
According to The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh said Monday afternoon on his show that seeking to connect the shooting with radio talk shows dominated by conservatives was part of a Democratic strategy.
"It is our right and our duty to criticize the people who have put the fate of our country in peril," Limbaugh said.
Locally, elected and appointed officials say they take measures to keep safe but know they can't stop someone bent on killing.
Alachua County Schools Superintendent Dan Boyd said the School Board decided before he came on board in July 2004 to have a sworn law officer in the board room at each meeting.
"We haven't had any situation where we thought this was necessary," Boyd said. "It could happen to any superintendent anywhere, anytime."
Alachua County Manager Randy Reid said the county has put security measures in place, including evacuation plans, silent alarms and glass doors.
"It's one of those things that's hard to talk about in detail because it defeats the purpose," Reid said. "We do make efforts to secure any meeting and judicial facility."
Uniformed and, occasionally, plainclothes law enforcement officers attend the county's meetings.
In addition to the occasional bomb threat or "mentally diminished person" speaking at meetings, the county also has to deal with issues like any other business, such as firing staff and protecting employees from domestic violence situations.
Ultimately, though, officials simply have to do their jobs.
"Anyone in public service knows that our purpose is to be close to the public," Reid said.
Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe agrees.
"I think it's just something you realize could happen anywhere," Lowe said. "The focus is on doing my job, and I can't let anything interfere."
History is littered with loners who held fringe beliefs or were insane and attacked or killed U.S. leaders.
House painter Richard Lawrence tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson on Jan. 30, 1835. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution.
John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, shot President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. He acted alone, but had accomplices to help him escape.
Charles Guiteau assassinated President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. The theologian and lawyer had, according to documents held by The Library of Congress, "decided that God had commanded him to kill" Garfield, whom Guiteau thought he had gotten elected by writing and delivering a speech. Guiteau insisted that he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting.
Anarchist and loner Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901. His attorney argued that he was insane at the time of the shooting. Newly-elevated President Theodore Roosevelt said, "When compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance."
Saloon-keeper John Schrank shot Theodore Roosevelt on Oct. 13, 1912, as he was preparing to give a speech. Roosevelt gave the speech, saying, "It takes more than one bullet to bring down a Bull Moose." Schrank was found legally insane and institutionalized.
Giuseppe Zangara attempted to shoot President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 15, 1933, in Miami, but instead killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Zangara apparently came to believe that President Herbert Hoover had caused his recurring physical pain and sought the assassinations of "all capitalist presidents and kings." Before he was executed in Florida's electric chair, Zangara famously said, "Push the button!"
Richard Paul Pavlick had started to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. He had loaded his 1950 Buick with dynamite and had intended to crash his car into the president's while he was vacationing. Pavlick changed his mind when he saw Kennedy with his wife and daughter. He spent six years in federal prisons and mental institutions before being released in 1966.
Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of assassinating Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. The Warren Commission investigated the murder after Oswald was killed and found that he was the lone gunman. The commission concluded that Oswald was a disturbed man, whose radical political views and depression led him to shoot the president.
In recent history, John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, to try to gain the attention of actress Jodie Foster.