Why violent far-right extremism is anti-American

Two days before Memorial Day this year, a 34-year-old man is accused of spray painting swastikas on 200 headstones in a Southern Illinois cemetery where more than 1,400 veterans are buried. Whatever the man's intentions, it was a remarkable show of contempt for the dead, and an even greater affront to the democratic values hundreds of those buried there had fought for in life. 

But the vandalism is also a stark reminder that hate groups have always been anti-American. From the KKK, which saw a resurgence during the Jim Crow era, to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, hate in the United States has a deep history of subversive violence meant to upend our democracy.

That’s why today, on a holiday when Americans honor those who died protecting our democratic values, we must remember that hate groups are not aberrations. As the writer Kathleen Belew wrote this year upon the publication of her book, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America”: 

“White-power activity in the United States is not new, nor has it been as shadowy as we may have imagined. It was known and then forgotten. We must, collectively, recognize its strength and history, or our amnesia will make it impossible to respond to such activism and violence in the present.”

We should make sure we never forget about the lesser-known chapters of our history, such as the racist paramilitary organizations that attempted to either set up separate governments or destroy exiting ones in the South throughout the late 19th Century.

In a hundred years, will we even remember Dylann Roof? And if we do recall that he was the one who killed nine black parishioners inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina, will we think of him as a lone wolf, or another example of how hatred is always moving toward violence?

The U.S. is a complex, imperfect democracy. But it withstands times of extreme turmoil because it is built upon the belief in certain unalienable rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Today we memorialize the men and women who died defending these rights; for they stand in contrast to those seeking to infringe upon them.