Extremists in Uniform

Extremists in Uniform

An army recruit trains at Fort Bragg, which veterans claim has served as a recruiting ground for white supremacists (U.S. Army / Flickr)

On the night of February 22, a bartender in Clinton, Missouri called 911 to report a customer who had just told her that he had “shot and killed two Iranian people.” The men Adam Purinton had shot, in a Kansas bar seventy miles away, were in fact Indian, not Iranian. Purinton told them to “get out of my country” and also shot a third man who tried to intervene. It was another spree shooting in America, accompanied by a new flurry of indignation toward those whose words might have provoked the bloodshed, along with other standard culprits: lax gun control, poor mental health care. Oddly little blame has been directed toward where Purinton may have been taught to kill: the United States military.

Purinton served in the Navy until 1990. His final deployment was aboard a nuclear-powered warship, patrolling the Persian Gulf during the leadup to the first Iraq invasion. A neighbor told reporters that Purinton “had pictures of the ships in his house and a lot of things from the Navy on the walls.”

A recent book by historian Andrew Bacevich quotes the former head of the U.S. military’s Central Command promising that American vessels menacing Yemen’s coast would keep the region “from becoming another Afghanistan.” Bacevich compares this belief that “periodic appearances by U.S. forces in unsettled quarters” will promote peace to “the Christian belief in the Second Coming—it provides the ultimate rationale for the entire enterprise.” The expanding chaos in the region shows what actually came out of that enterprise. One of the warships watching over Yemen was the USS Cole, bombed by Osama bin Laden in a Yemeni port in 2000. The Cole returned to this same coast in January as a response to Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacking a Saudi warship. U.S. drones have bombed Yemen since 2002, U.S.-supplied Saudi jets and artillery since 2015.

War in Muslim countries has become the American military’s primary work over the past quarter-century. Bacevich, who served in the 1991 invasion of Iraq and whose son died in the current one, observes that “virtually no American soldiers have been killed anywhere except the Greater Middle East” since 1990, compared to virtually none before 1980. In 2016 the United States dropped at least 26,172 bombs (an average of three per hour every day) on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Some of those bombing campaigns are in their second decade, Iraq’s its third. The military provides a full pension after twenty years of service, and teenagers who enlisted for the current war in Afghanistan are now four years from that point.

Trump seems unlikely to end his predecessors’ carnage. Instead, he seems determined to provoke yet another war, this time with the country whose threat Purinton feared: Iran. The White House said last month that it was “officially putting Iran on notice,” and U.S. forces are already amassed in Iran’s physical neighbors, alongside deployments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Djibouti, and Egypt.

The “blowback” from all these wars is typically understood as revenge from those the United States has attacked. But there may be another spillover threat. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security report warned that “veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities” could become “extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks,” especially as extremist groups” try to “exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” The suggestion provoked Republican uproar, and Homeland Security quickly retracted the report and dismantled the unit that produced it.

The problem didn’t go away, though. Wade Michael Page, the neo-Nazi who shot up a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, killing six worshippers, was reportedly recruited to the skinhead ranks while stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. James von Brunn, the white supremacist who shot and killed a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was a veteran as well. So were several participants in the 2014 and 2016 Bundy militia standoffs. And then there are the Oath Keepers, the group of “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders” labeled as “patriot” extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center, who sent an armed patrol to Ferguson in 2015 and another to guard against protesters at Trump’s inauguration.

Even after Homeland Security withdrew its “Rightwing Extremism” report, other agencies uncovered new links between far-right groups and the armed branches of government. A classified FBI report from 2015 documented white supremacist infiltration of local police departments, warning that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”

There’s no evidence at this time that Purinton was directed by extremist groups. He appears to have been nothing more than a lone racist with an alcohol problem. But Americans would no doubt be asking deeper questions if the roles here were reversed and an Iranian shouted about his country while shooting veterans. “What ideology radicalized him?” we’d need to know. “Did militant groups provide training or expertise?” “Is the threat widespread?”

Could the ideology that radicalized Purinton be a version of the one that forgives official violence against people of color both at home and abroad? Purinton will likely spend decades in prison and may even face the death penalty. Why do police who kill or assault people of color, in many cases based on similarly hazy suspicion of dark-skinned strangers minding their business, face no such accountability?

This past May, Alabama prosecutors refused to bring charges against Eric Parker, a police officer whom video showed beating an unarmed fifty-seven-year old named Sureshbhai Patel to the point of paralysis. Patel had arrived from India a week earlier to visit a new grandchild. He was on a morning walk around his son’s suburban neighborhood when a neighbor reported a suspicious-looking “skinny black guy.” Patel didn’t know enough English to understand what the police who confronted him were saying. A dashboard camera captured Parker throwing a handcuffed Patel to the ground, apparently unprompted. Two separate federal juries declined to convict Parker of civil rights violations. “When you come to the U.S. we expect you to follow our laws and speak our language,” the officer’s lawyer argued to jurors. Parker was put back on duty this past fall, joining the long list of police officers whose violence was never punished by a court.

White Americans might resent such racial profiling, but they will never feel its threat. They benefit from profiling whether they want to or not: they’re less likely to get followed, stopped, or killed. Well-meaning white liberals are quick to condemn hate crimes, and many decry police brutality, too. But they remain more likely to feel reassured by police, to trust what police claim, to dismiss as too radical critiques from those who experience policing differently. They are also more willing to forgive police abuses on the grounds that police make them safer, not unlike faraway military carnage carried out in the name of national security. Parker was white, as were all ten of the jurors who voted to acquit him at his September 2015 trial. The two votes to convict both came from black women. Perhaps the ten saw Patel’s cracked spine as an acceptable price for police making them feel secure.

Purinton, by early accounts suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, does not deserve harsh punishment. Like anyone broken by social failures outside their control, veterans who commit crimes are owed a measure of leniency to account for society’s contribution to their criminality. Perhaps society’s responsibility here extends beyond Purinton’s military service, though, to the impunity for comparable violence committed by the state. As the legal scholar Youngjae Lee has written in a related context, “the State’s standing to condemn” in cases like this “is undermined because the State itself has caused the conditions leading to the crimes.”


Shakeer Rahman will be a civil rights lawyer at the Bronx Defenders starting this fall.

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