Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Face of American Terrorism

(This article was originally written in 2000)

More than five years after the Oklahoma City bombing exposed the ugly face of homegrown terrorism, there has been surprisingly little change in the way Americans understand terrorism. The images that flood the mind when you speak of terrorism in the United States today are still overwhelmingly of Middle Eastern plotters and bombers. Osama Bin Laden, the shadowy Afghanistan-based suspected terrorist, not Timothy McVeigh, who was sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombing, remains America’s terrorist poster child.

When millennium jitters hit the United States last December following the arrest of a terrorist suspect in Washington state, the spotlight turned to Canada as a potential staging ground for attacks by Islamic extremists against American targets. Briefly, Canada morphed from America’s harmless, even downright dull northern neighbour to a potential menace. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a liberal Democrat from California, adopted this point of view in a Senate hearing in Washington DC in February 2000 when she called for major action to enhance security on the Canadian border, charging that "Canada’s generous immigration policies have meant that terrorist groups can more easily set up cells there."

Orthodox American thought focuses on threats from rogues abroad---rogue groups and states---rather than on rogues at home.

What the idea of terrorism as something external to America shuts out is the startling reality that for the past couple of decades, the United States has been suffering from assault after assault generated by domestic right-wing terrorists. In western Europe, skinheads and neo-nazis attach themselves loosely to far right political parties like the Front National in France or the Austrian Freedom Party. But in the advanced industrialized world, it is only in the United States that a home grown movement of para-military forces, outfitted with ample weaponry, operates as a permanent shadowy opposition to the national government.

Zealots who believe that the highest legitimate government official ought to be the county sheriff have been the authors of numerous threats and attacks against federal and state government employees. During the 1990s, fifteen U.S. abortion clinics were bombed, dozens more were subjected to acts of arson and seven abortion providers were murdered. (James Kopp of St. Albans, Vermont, who has been charged with the October 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a Buffalo doctor, is a police suspect in the wounding of three Canadian abortion doctors.)

No isolated event, the Oklahoma City bombing, which took 167 lives, was a strike against the federal government that was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the fiery raid by federal agents that consumed David Koresh and his followers at Waco, Texas. Extremists in the militias and other far right movements have treated earlier shootouts between far right outlaws and the police as patriotic acts of defiance against the state. In 1983, Gordon Kahl, a member of the far right Posse Comitatus, refused to pay taxes or obey the conditions for his parole from prison. He was involved in a gunfight in which two deputy U.S. marshals were killed. A few months later, Kahl was hunted down by police in his hideaway in the Ozark Mountains. After he shot a county sheriff, Kahl was shot dead and his body was burned as his cabin went up in flames. Kahl’s funeral was attended by hundreds of far-right extremists, who saw him as a hero in the patriotic struggle.

The accidental killing of the wife and son of far right fugitive Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, by FBI agents in 1992 has similarly been elevated by extremists to the level of an epic struggle against the federal government.

For years in America, armed men have been training in the woods in militia units whose potential target is the U.S. federal government. While not terrorist organizations themselves, the militias have been a spawning ground for terrorists, such as Timothy McVeigh who attended meetings of the Michigan Militia.

Two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, I drove north to the tiny hamlet of Alanson, Michigan to interview Norm Olson, the founder of the Michigan Militia. Olson, a preacher and gun dealer, greeted me at the door of his ranch style house, which was located next door to his shed, which doubled as a retail gun shop. A tall, fit-looking man in his late forties, Olson was wearing olive fatigues and boots and a militia cap emblazoned with the slogan "Enough is Enough".

It was Olson who had the political imagination to capitalize on the deep alienation from contemporary American society of his cronies and men like them, many of them Vietnam war veterans. Along with 27 others, Olson founded the Michigan Militia in April 1994. The militia's state-wide membership quickly mushroomed to 12,000 and similar militias have been formed in many other states.

"Why the guns and the camouflage?" Olson asked rhetorically as we sat drinking coffee in his kitchen, where he was accompanied by a co-founder of the Michigan Militia. "Because we wanted to get people's attention. We could have gone out with placards in three piece suits and no one would have noticed."

He described U.S. President Bill Clinton as a puppet whose strings were being pulled by evil figures in "a field of power" which surrounded the White House. The picture that emerged was of a super-cabal---operatives of the new world government, much ballyhooed on the extreme right---that was actually running the United States. The line that the U.S. has lost its sovereignty to the new world order is peddled daily on far right talk radio programs across the country.

Olson insisted that the Michigan Militia was the direct descendant of the militias of the American Revolution. He reminded me that when the British army ordered the colonial militia to put down their weapons at Lexington Common in 1775, the colonials refused.

"No one knows who fired the first shot, the shot heard round the world," he said, and quipped "maybe it was the CIA." Then he made his point: "We hope a second shot will not be necessary."

This allusion to the potential for a civil war in the United States is the central myth that sustains the militias. How sinister, and yet absurd, to encounter men whose only conceivable purpose for assembling weapons and undertaking military training is to use force, if necessary, against their own government.

One can find echoes of the sensibility of American extremists in Canada in the acts of individuals like Wiebo Ludwig, who was sentenced to 28 months in jail for his bombing campaign against the Alberta oil industry, which also involved him in confrontations with the RCMP. And anti-gun control advocates like NRA President Charlton Heston draw large crowds when they come to Canada. But the anti-state ideology that binds the American far right together, has always had less resonance on this side of the border.

Those who stockpile weapons to engage in combat against the U.S. state do not operate in a vacuum that seals them off from the American political spectrum. They are connected to the mainstream right in a myriad of ways and have become one of the mass bases of the Republican Party. At annual meetings of the Council on National Policy, a right-wing organization that does not allow the press to attend its meetings, Republican leaders such as Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, and Congressional heavyweights like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, have rubbed shoulders with far-right radicals like Larry Pratt, the leader of Gun Owners of America, a body even more extreme than the NRA. In 1996, Pratt was exposed as having ties to the para-military right and white supremacists.

Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have pandered to far right sensibilities by holding hearings on Waco and Ruby Ridge, while never conducting a thorough investigation of the militia movement. While in Congress, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s newly picked running mate, played to this constituency when he voted against all gun control legislation, including a proposed ban on what are called cop killer bullets.

Not all American liberals share the view that the terrorist wing of the American right poses as serious a threat to liberty as the American state and its heavily armed agents. Social commentators Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair edit Counter Punch, a Washington DC based liberal newsletter that displays an anti-state ideology that bears a clear resemblance to ideas often encountered on the right. In a recent editorial entitled The Jackboot State, Counter Punch published a critique of the Clinton Administration that could easily have appeared in a journal of the far right. Written days after the raid by the INS team that snatched Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives, the editorial claimed that "the Bill of Rights has disappeared" and that in America "all the appurtenances of a fully fledged police state [are] in place."

Counter Punch asserted that the week before the Elian raid, "the left experienced its own evocation of Kristallnacht, in the week of demonstrations in Washington DC against the World Bank and the WTO…" According to the editorial, police broke into and ransacked the homes of opposition leaders, and raided and closed down demonstrators’ offices. The editorial alleged that some of the hundreds arrested were subjected to "random beatings, denials of food and water for 24 hours, racial abuse, threats of rape, refusals to allow consultations with attorneys."

In an E Mail interview I conducted with Alexander Cockburn, he dismissed the threat of domestic terrorism to the inhabitants of the United States as a "non-starter". "It’s a million times more risky to eat hamburger," he wrote. "On the other hand, the jackboot state destroys liberty and is substantively lethal---most notably at Waco, but also in many encounters where people get blown away by arrogant or jumpy cops, or brutalized, framed and thrown into the dungeons that increasingly infest the landscape."

I’m sure abortion doctors, who are being systematically targeted, would regard their predicament as more dire than that of hamburger eaters. Perhaps the truth is that America’s domestic terrorists and the jackboot state, which often gains additional powers following terrorist eposides, fit together like hand and glove. In a very real sense, they are made for each other.

No comments: