Tuesday August 29, 2017
In the wake of the protest in Charlottesville by white supremacists, many people are demanding a crackdown on dangerous right-wing extremists. The federal government has previously carried out similar campaigns against with disastrous results. Rather than intellectually purifying the nation, such efforts are far more likely to turn nitwits into martyrs and to ravage Washington’s credibility.
Prior federal law enforcement efforts to take down “bad ideas” quickly spiraled out of control. In the 1960s, an FBI COINTELPRO operation set up its own 250-member Klan organization “to attract membership away from the United Klans of America,” as a 1976 Senate report noted. One federally-funded informant admitted that he and other Klansmen had “beaten people severely, had boarded buses and kicked people off; had went [sic] in restaurants and beaten them with blackjacks, chains, pistols.” Other FBI COINTELPRO operations sought to destroy black activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. One FBI office boasted of spurring “shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest … in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego.”
Once the FBI committed to subverting “dissident speech,” its crackdowns became a bureaucratic growth industry that eventually included even women’s liberation movements. Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston testified in 1975 of COINTELPRO’s tendency “to move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.”