By Spencer Ackerman / The Nation
The war comes home” is a misleading phrase that we should probably abandon. America’s endless foreign wars usually reflect violent economic, social, and political currents already within our borders and that stretch as far back as settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and the birth of racial capitalism.
But foreign wars and domestic social ungluing certainly interact with each other, as when Chicago police commander Jon Burge tortured Black Chicagoans with electric shocks familiar from Vietnam. And you could see this dynamic this spring, when right-wing politicians and journalists embraced vigilantes, especially those with military backgrounds.
For several days after he fatally strangled a homeless Black man, Jordan Neely, for threateningly vocalizing his crisis on an F train on May 1, New Yorkers didn’t know Daniel Penny’s name. The press, following the lead of the police, referred to him only as the Marine. The effect, particularly amid a generation-long War on Terror, was to portray Penny as an anonymous hero, someone willing and able to confront the scourge of homelessness with the due force usually applied against America’s foreign enemies. In this framing, Penny wasn’t the modern Bernie Goetz. He was Cincinnatusreborn as the Punisher.
Democratic power structure hesitated to treat Penny the way they would have treated Neely had Neely been the one to initiate violence. Mayor Eric Adams, whose demonization of the homeless recalls Rudy Giuliani’s war on the “squeegee men” of the 1990s, empathized with Penny. “We cannot just blanketly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that,” Adams said on May 3, taking to task progressives like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who emphasized Neely’s humanity. District Attorney Alvin Bragg waited until May 12 to charge Penny, who had been free after initial questioning by the police, and the charge wasn’t murder, but second-degree manslaughter.
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That didn’t stop Florida Governor Ron DeSantis from slamming Bragg as a “Soros-backed DA,” which is to say a Black man who is just the puppet of a powerful Jew, in a tweet urging donations to Penny’s defense fund—now topping $2 million from 40,000 donors—to “show this Marine…America’s got his back.” The National Police Association called Penny a “good Samaritan,” language echoed in a Wall Street Journal editorial that speculated that as a “veteran, [Penny] may have felt a particular responsibility” to “protect himself and others.” the New York Post even compared Penny to the defiant passengers aboard United Flight 93 on 9/11.
All this underscored a yearning on the right for violence to reassert its social dominance at home, as it does American dominance abroad. In April, a Texas jury convicted Daniel Perry, an Army sergeant, of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester during a 2020 demonstration in Austin. Perry claimed that his victim, Garrett Foster, leveled the AK-47 he was legally carrying, but witnesses contradicted that at trial. On the eve of Perry’s conviction, Tucker Carlson, predictably, painted the murderer as the victim. The next day, Governor Greg Abbott, a man not known for his clemency, tweeted that he was “working as swiftly as Texas law allows regarding the pardon of Sgt. Perry.” Left unsaid was that Foster was an Air Force veteran. The public deference the right typically demands for veterans stops when a veteran’s politics are inconvenient.
Perry was sentenced to 25 years earlier this month. At his sentencing hearing, it emerged that at the dawn of the 2020 BLM protests, he posted on Facebook, “It is official I am a racist because I do not agree with people acting like animals at the zoo”; lamented that he couldn’t “get paid for hunting Muslims in Europe”; and texted a friend, “I wonder if they will let my [sic] cut the ears off of people who’s decided to commit suicide by me.” His defense team attempted to argue that Perry had PTSD from his Afghanistan deployment, which is an insult to the vast majority of Afghanistan veterans who don’t murder people. Carlson claimed Perry’s conviction showed that “in the state of Texas, if you have the wrong politics, you’re not allowed to defend yourself.” That is exactly what Abbott’s impending pardon will prove to anyone who might avail themselves of Texas’s open-carry laws for a left-wing reason.
The fact that Perry had a place within the Army speaks to a deep institutional problem that the Pentagon typically seeks to avoid. As scholar Kathleen Belew has documented, the militia-based turn in the post-civil-rights-era white supremacist movement owed much to Vietnam veterans who considered their real enemies to be here at home. Future Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh wore in his Army barracks a “White Power” shirt he got with a KKK trial membership. After the discovery of a substantial portion of 1/6 insurrectionists with military backgrounds, the Pentagon orderedcommanders to discuss with their troops the unacceptability of “extremism” in the ranks. Yet measures short of “active participation” in white supremacist action, such as membership in right-wing militias like the Oath Keepers, remain acceptable. A senior Pentagon official groused to me last year that the policy was “milquetoast.” The military’s long-standing reluctance to address its white supremacist problem is America in microcosm.
A recent measure of that reluctance came last month, when a former intelligence analyst assigned to the 1st Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg pleaded guilty to possessing a serial-number-free “ghost gun.” Federal prosecutors said that the 23-year old Noah Edwin Anthony, whom the military discharged last year after military police found his ghost pistol, possessed in his barracks “an American flag with a Swastika, instead of blue field and stars, and other Nazi type patches,” as well as other unregistered guns. On Anthony’s devices were what prosecutors said was evidence of his ambitions to “physically remove as many of [Black and brown people] from Hoke, Cumberland, Robeson and Scotland Counties by whatever means need be.” In a different chain of command, the Massachusetts Air National Guardsman charged with posting classified documents to Discord servers filmed himself at a firing range saying, “Jews scam, n****** rape, and I mag-dump.”
Yet at least one Republican senator thinks that the Pentagon’s “extremism” rules are too restrictive. “The Democrats are attacking our military, saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists, people that don’t believe in our agenda,” Mississippi’s Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn football coach who now sits on the Armed Services Committee, told a radio interviewer. When the interviewer pressed Tuberville on the acceptability of white nationalists in the military, he replied, “I call them Americans.”
The extreme right is often misconstrued as anti-war. In reality, it wants to wage its war on American soil, against people whose Americanness it won’t recognize, like Jordan Neely or Garrett Foster. The Democratic response is often evasive, leaving in jeopardy vulnerable people it claims to champion. Penny’s intentions are not to be presumed until his trial. But more broadly, unless the Pentagon purges its white nationalists—and the country more broadly confronts the militarism so deeply rooted in both its history and its economic system—it will continue to produce and train many of the right’s cherished domestic combatants.
Spencer Ackerman, a Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award–winning reporter, is the author of Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.