On Wednesday, according to news reports, James W. Von Brunn, a longtime belligerent racist and anti-Semite, walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and opened fire, murdering a security guard before he himself was shot and neutralized. Good people everywhere recognize the vicious criminality of his attack, and the particular insidiousness of his motivation to lash out where he did.

In reflecting on this tragedy, it is an appropriate time to contemplate the sanctity of innocent life, the horror that is unleashed by bigotry and intolerance, and the fragility of peaceful human relations. We should all be thankful that such hate-motivated violence is rarer in modern America than it has been in other places and times.

Unfortunately, many commentators have found a political, even partisan, lesson to be learned. They have said this vindicates the Department of Homeland Security document circulated earlier this year that warned against “right-wing extremists.” Specifically, they have said that those who criticized the report were wrong all along.

But what were the criticisms? I recall no one arguing that anti-Semitic murderers were not criminals whose acts were horrific and uncivilized. There was no critic of the report, so far as I know, who complained that such antisocial elements as Ku Klux Klan members, Timothy McVeigh wannabes, and bigoted criminals, did not deserve the condemnation that all of civil society heaps upon them.

The problem with the report was that it painted all so-called “right-wing extremists” with an absurdly and obscenely broad brush. It lumped together the above violent agitators with peaceful political activists and recently returning veterans. It warned about people who are anti-government, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-gun control, anti-illegal immigration and anti-abortion.

The facts that von Brunn himself was a veteran—from World War II, not exactly fitting the profile—and that he had a very incorrect conspiratorial, anti-Semitic understanding of the Federal Reserve, even trying to kidnap Fed officials back in the 1980s, have been noted, but it still does not justify this broad brush. (Liberty lovers oppose the Fed not out of racism or hatred of Jews, as von Brunn apparently does. In fact, many of us have come to oppose it having been thankfully influenced by the most brilliant analyses ever written on central banking by Jewish economists Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.)

Consider what “right-wing extremism” actually means.

Some would call Barry Goldwater a rightwing extremist, although he was incredibly socially liberal on issues ranging from homosexuality to drugs and even abortion. Was Ronald Reagan a rightwing extremist? He busted the budget, legalized abortion in California, favored gun control and enacted immigration amnesty. Whatever you think of these actions, they demonstrate the limits of such labels.

Some would say George W. Bush was a rightwing extremist, although it would be disingenuous to say he represented “anti-government” sentiment in any respect whatsoever. Indeed, it was the agency he created, the DHS, that began work on this report, while he was still in power.

The Nazis, whose current admirers have reportedly associated proudly with Von Brunn, are often considered the paragon of rightwing extremism, but Hitler and his followers were definitely not anti-central bank or anti-gun control and certainly not anti-government. Indeed, it does not take much to realize that the Holocaust had nothing to do with being anti-government.

And so apparently “rightwingers” can include peaceniks and warmongers, libertarians and fascists, radical individualists and racist totalitarians and everything in between.

A similarly broad brush was used under Bush, but against different groups of people—Muslim terrorists, normal followers of Islam, leftist activists and antiwar patriots were often thrown together as enemies of America. Peaceful Americans who opposed the war were lumped in with fanatics who slit the throats of innocents. “You’re either with us, or against us in the fight against terror,” the president said.

This failure to differentiate among different people is actually very similar to the root problem with racism. Racists see the world in terms of groups, defined most often by skin color, rather than acknowledging the unique character inherent in every individual. Instead of appreciating the dignity and human singularity of every man, woman and child, racists see the world in terms of black and white, where all people fall into one of several groups of dubious significance. The very worst of them not only fail to understand these differences; they disregard the human rights of individuals and countenance or even perpetrate criminal acts against the lives, liberty and property of people merely on the basis of their perceived racial group.

This bellicose racism is incompatible with an open, tolerant society, and to say so is uncontroversial. Those of us who believe in liberty and oppose big government tend to believe that a free society of open exchange, free trade and individual liberty will foster interracial tolerance and social peace, whereas government tends to divide and amplify social and racial tensions.

To take it further, now that the topic has been opened up for political discussion, let us consider the political atmosphere most conducive to the worst racial atrocities. As horrific and inexcusable as the occasional neo-Nazi or hate-motivated violence is in our own society, what was it that allowed the actual Nazis, the ones who controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945, to translate bigotry into mass murder on an unspeakable and technologically systematic scale? There are people in every society with views as immoral and disgusting as Adolf Hitler’s. But what made Nazi Germany, a regime that terrorized Europe and murdered millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, handicapped persons and Gypsies, among others, possible?

The answer is centralized political power. The answer is unlimited government.

The Nazi regime was a hate crime multiplied millions of times over. It was only possible because Hitler was not just a thug with a gang of criminals—he was a thug in political control of a whole country.

And here we see the profound irony behind associating Nazi nutcases with good old American anti-government sentiment, as some have been doing. Nazism, or National Socialism, was an ideology concerned not just with racist nationalism but also with building the total state.

The Nazi regime was the antithesis of the old liberal ideal of a free society. Aside from aggressive war, the demonization of “the Other,” the elevation of The Leader above all, the suspension of civil liberties and a free press, and aggressive war, it embodied an economic program of fascism—rightwing socialism. As Lew Rockwell has pointed out in “The Violence of Central Planning,” once in power, Hitler

“suspended the gold standard, embarked on huge public works programs like Autobahns, protected industry from foreign competition, expanded credit, instituted jobs programs, bullied the private sector on prices and production decisions, vastly expanded the military, enforced capital controls, instituted family planning, penalized smoking, brought about national health care and unemployment insurance, imposed education standards, and eventually ran huge deficits. The Nazi interventionist program was essential to the regime’s rejection of the market economy and its embrace of socialism in one country. . . .”

“So it is with protectionism. It was the major ambition of Hitler’s economic program to expand the borders of Germany to make autarky viable, which meant building huge protectionist barriers to imports. The goal was to make Germany a self-sufficient producer so that it did not have to risk foreign influence and would not have the fate of its economy bound up with the goings-on in other countries. It was a classic case of economically counterproductive xenophobia.”

Interestingly, much of Hitler’s economic program would have bipartisan support today. This is of course not to say that Americans who agree with some of these policies are comparable to Hitler. But it is worth noting that the entire Nazi program was contrary to liberty and restrained government, even on relatively mundane questions like unemployment insurance, and so anyone who is actually “anti-government,” or opposed to central banking, gun control, central economic planning, or the growing federal bureaucracy is to that extent emphatically opposite of the Nazis in ideology.

All who join us in a consistent opposition to unlimited government not only oppose the poisonous racism that feeds occasional and more or less isolated atrocities like the one on Wednesday, but uphold an ideology and political agenda that would prevent racial hatred from manifesting itself in racially motivated atrocities on the grand scale that only an unleashed government is capable of producing.

In our own country, things are not as dire as they were in Nazi Germany, thanks in part, we would hope, to having a more tolerant culture. But it is mostly because of our classical liberal tradition that we have had a better racial history than some nations. To the extent we have strayed from the ideals of liberty, we have seen shameful acts committed in our name, and acts throughout history that have blemished the legacy of our nation.

Slavery would have been impossible to maintain without government support. The mass slaughter of American Indians was facilitated by the federal government. Innocent foreigners have been killed in great numbers by the U.S. in wars of choice. Those seen to be different from the norm—from the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II to the African-Americans disproportionately locked up in the war on drugs to the Branch Davidians killed by the FBI at Waco, Texas in 1993—have always been the most vulnerable.

This reflects the need for both a culture that respects innocent life, individual rights and tolerance as well as strict limits on government power. The cultural element and the political are related, and reflect on each other. A free society at peace with itself is less likely to be bullied into huge governmental power grabs, whether in the name of economic crisis or national security. Just as these were the excuses Hitler exploited to do the unspeakable, they are the excuses that have allowed American politicians to compromise our liberties, expand their own power and send young Americans to kill and die in aggressive war.

Again, this is not to say that Obama or the liberals who favor expansive government are in the same league as Hitler. But given that the DHS report tarred so many people with the same brush and that it is being brought up again, we should note that the ideology of totalitarianism and mass murder is anything but an anti-government, anti-establishment ideology, despite what many are today saying and implying. Quite the reverse.

As we look at the national security state built up by Bush in the name of the war on terror—preemptive war, the suspension of civil liberties, indefinite detention, torture and warrantless surveillance—and as we consider the corporatism, the nationalization and federal control of industry, the bailouts and stimulus started under Bush and continuing and accelerating under Obama, we have to ask ourselves: What is the way to guarantee that America never repeats the horrors which the Holocaust Museum was intended to make us never forget? Bush was not Hitler and neither is Obama. But just as seemingly benevolent Weimar policies and precedents were seized upon and expanded by Hitler so as to conduct the most ghastly of evils, today’s indefinite detention centers, centralized economic powers and unlimited presidential military powers could one day be seized by a power-mad “leader” with not just the bad judgment and hubris of Bush and Obama, but with the worst of intentions.

If any political lesson is to be taken from the shooting on Wednesday, it is not that those concerned with protecting individual liberty and limiting government are the problem in our society. It is not that the DHS report is in fact beyond harsh criticism. There will always be sick minds in the world. Occasionally, a crazed killer will act out of hatred and commit a violent crime, and the seriousness should not be minimized. But the way to actually prevent such attitudes from gaining ground is to hold up the opposing ethic of individual rights, dignity and respect. The only way to make sure such madness never translates into nationwide or global horror is to keep political power constrained.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2009, Campaign for Liberty.