The violent populist anger over the economy, immigration and opposition to the Obama administration that has been swirling through the country for more than a year suddenly took concrete form last week, when authorities arrested members of a Michigan extremist group who they said were plotting to attack law enforcement officers and incite a right-wing rebellion against the government.
In indictments unsealed this week, the government accused the group, a self-styled "Christian militia" calling itself the Hutaree, of conspiring to murder a police officer then kill hundreds of mourners expected to attend the funeral by using improvised explosive devices built from instructions available on the Internet.
If that sounds like a wildly improbable scenario, the FBI says it was only too possible and that militia members were in fact only days away from carrying out the first phase of their plan, which involved a "covert reconnaissance" mission during which the group's leader authorized killing anyone who inadvertently got in the way.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across the country, after years of moderate growth between 2000 and 2008, the militia movement suddenly exploded in 2009, when the SPLC counted a total of 369 new groups that had come into existence since the election of Barack Obama as president.
In its annual Intelligence Report, the center cited the resurgence of radical right militias as cause for grave concern. "Individuals associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead," it said. Since Mr. Obama's election, it cites the murder of six law enforcement officers, plots against the president's life by racist skinheads and the case of a Massachusetts man charged with "murdering two black people and planning to kill as many Jews as possible" as evidence the danger from such groups is growing.
That danger clearly is fueled by the scare tactics and absurd conspiracy theories peddled by right-wing cable news commentators that leave people even more confused and uncertain about their future. Rage over the bank bailouts, high unemployment, home foreclosures and immigration, coupled with apolcalytpic religious ideologies such as the Hutaree belief that the end of the world is imminent, have combined to create a volatile mix of frustration and resentment that all too easily appeal to people's worst instincts.
Although the SPLW lists 13 hate groups currently active in Maryland, only one of them is a militia like the Hutaree, and it's unclear whether membership here has increased like it has in other states. But one clear lesson of the Michigan case is that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies must redouble their efforts to be as vigilant to the threat of domestic terrorism as they are to threats from abroad. In an era that has witnessed the viral spread of violent ideologies of every stripe, officials must take every threat seriously in order to protect communities from those who would impose their will on others through extremist violence.