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Williams: When extremism is the norm, democracy is imperiled
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Williams: When extremism is the norm, democracy is imperiled

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During the same month a former Rocky Mount, Va., police officer at the Jan. 6 insurrection moved to get his charge dismissed, the Pentagon stopped short of barring service members from extremist groups.

And we wonder why democracy withers on the vine.

The former police sergeant in question, Thomas “T.J.” Robertson, is an Army veteran who embodies the problem that senior leaders in the military are in denial about: the presence of extremists in the ranks.

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A photo of Jacob Fracker, left, and Thomas “T.J.” Robertson inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that was part of the complaint filed against them in federal court.

The attorney for Robertson filed a motion earlier this month to dismiss a felony charge against him related to the U.S. Capitol insurrection, according to The Roanoke Times.

“Mr. Robertson, like many other defendants, had no direct bearing on what others in various parts of the crowd ... were doing,” wrote defense attorney Mark Rollins.

What does have a bearing, prosecutors say, are online comments Robertson posted after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

“A legitimate republic stands on 4 boxes,” he wrote Nov. 7, 2020, on Facebook, prosecutors say. “The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box and then the cartridge box.”

“We just moved to step 3. Step 4 will not be pretty. I cannot speak for others, but being disenfranchised by fraud is my hard line. I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting a counter insurgency. I’m about to become part of one, and a very effective one,” the Times reports.

Robertson was allowed to remain free on a personal recognizance bond following his arrest in January, before being charged with violating the conditions of his bond following a search of his home, the Times reports. Prosecutors allege that an “assault-style rifle,” a cache of ammunition and a partially assembled pipe bomb were found.

A disproportionate number of those at the insurrection were veterans or active duty U.S. military members, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by a police officer while attempting to climb through a broken window of a barricaded door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby of the Capitol.

The hazards of extremism among active duty military and veterans are not theoretical; we’ve witnessed it in real time. There are no atheists in that foxhole, but we certainly can’t rule out the presence of extremists.

Rather than prohibiting active duty military personnel from membership in extremist groups, the new rules are focused on regulating behavior such as social media posts.

It appears that you can wear the hood and the sheet as well as the uniform. Just don’t “like” a Facebook post about the Klan.

Explain to me how this makes sense?

Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat and retired colonel in the Army Reserve, said in an interview with NPR that the new rules are a positive step but don’t go far enough.

“And the point that I’ve been making to the secretary of defense, the deputy secretary, my colleagues in Congress is that Congress has to make a really firm, definitive statement that membership in an extremist organization ... whether it’s the KKK, whether it’s a gang organization or the Oath Keepers, is enough to disqualify you from participating in the military. And they didn’t go that far.”

He added that senior military leaders, contrary to available data from various sources, are in denial about extremists in the U.S. military ranks.

“It doesn’t characterize the men and women who serve, the vast majority of whom are loyal, patriotic Americans, but one extremist in the ranks is just one too many.”

A membership in a hate group or an outfit that participates in an insurrection is not a political leaning; it’s an affiliation that should be antithetical to any organization based on order, honor or inclusion.

In military outfits where the chain of command and esprit de corps are everything, can active duty members of color follow the command of — or entrust their lives with — members of hate groups?

Instead of soft-pedaling this issue, the Pentagon needs to examine in earnest why so many extremists are attracted to the military, why they aren’t being weeded out, and why so many veterans segue seamlessly toward hate groups after their service is done.

In a nation so rife with toxic partisanship that it’s cracking the foundation of democracy, the military cannot be allowed to continue to function as a training ground for people who will use their government-issue skills to assault the Constitution, or attack fellow citizens of a different race, nationality or creed.

If extremism is allowed to become the norm, the new normal will be anything but.

Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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