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The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, Daniel Levitas, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press: 520 pp., $27.95

February 16, 2003|Martin A. Lee | Martin A. Lee is the author of "The Beast Reawakens," a book on neofascism.

Reasonable people may scoff at right-wing extremists who claim that black helicopter sightings herald a U.N.-led military takeover of the United States. But we do ourselves a serious disservice if we regard militia cadres and their progenitors merely as fringe elements and ignore the extent to which their one-world, don't-tread-on-me phobias dovetail with widely held suspicions and deep-rooted anxieties.

Daniel Levitas, author of "The Terrorist Next Door," an exemplary history of America's home-grown radical right, cautions against underestimating the threat posed by hate groups and hard-core fellow travelers, who, though relatively few in number, have nonetheless succeeded in influencing aspects of mainstream politics and discourse. Today, there are millions of Americans who think that the United States is in imminent danger of surrendering its sovereignty to a shadowy, globalist clique that covertly controls the "New World Order." Some even subscribe to the conviction that citizens must arm themselves to stop a tyrannical government from usurping their constitutional rights.

Consider this small but telling incident recounted by Levitas. In May 1994, Oklahoma legislators ratified dubious conspiracy theories when the state House passed a resolution urging Congress to "cease any support for the establishment of a 'new world order' [and to] refrain from taking any further steps toward the economic or political merger of the United States into a world body or any form of world government." Obsessed by similar ideas, a fanatic named Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building a year later.

For most Americans, the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City came like a bolt from the blue. But something ominous had long been brewing in the heartland. The massacre on April 19, 1995, differed in scope, but not in kind, from a persistent drumbeat of far-right violence that had been building for some time, as Levitas documents in his definitive, tightly woven chronicle.

"The Terrorist Next Door" describes the birth of the gun-toting vigilante organization known as the Posse Comitatus and the development of the modern paramilitary right. Much of this copiously researched saga revolves around Posse founder William Potter Gale (1916-1988), a Christian Identity pastor with a rap sheet, whose virulent white supremacist sermons inspired a rogues' gallery of malcontents, including such notable recruits as Richard Butler, leader of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations. Levitas credits Gale with introducing the notion of "unorganized citizens' militias" that became a hallmark of the Christian Patriot movement in the 1990s.

Nourished by the odiferous compost of paranoia and hate that has long moldered on the American margins, Gale linked the Posse's ideas and values to centuries-old racist myths and anti-Semitic prejudices. The Jews, he insisted, were not actually the chosen people, but impostors who had descended from Khazar tribes in Central Asia and subsequently migrated to Europe. Christian Aryans, according to Gale, were the true ancient Israelites who forged a sacred covenant with God.

In a bizarre and unexpected twist, it turns out that Gale's family was Jewish. The Gales fled Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism and settled in the United States in the late 1800s. "Bill Gale was a Jewish anti-Semite who spent a lifetime trying to convince other anti-Semites that they, too, were Jews," writes Levitas. "As for his real Jewish identity, it was a secret he kept hidden" lest it ruin his career as a professional white supremacist.

Gale cut his teeth as a right-wing militant in the early 1950s, when fervent anti-communism provided a convenient cover for racist opposition to civil rights. He was particularly disdainful of conventional conservatives who refused to acknowledge the "Jewish roots" of Bolshevism -- a canard repeatedly invoked by Gale and other American anti-Semites, who helped set the stage for the Hollywood blacklist by alleging that Jewish film moguls used motion pictures to spread communism. "One cannot divorce the explosion of anti-Communism in the 1950s from the decades of Jew-hatred that preceded it," Levitas observes. Gale hardly blazed new trails when he harangued his acolytes to take up arms to defend segregation, root out communist subversion and resist the evils of federal authority. But Gale would soon distinguish himself by fashioning a unique, American-sounding ideology that mixed muddled arguments for anti-big-government constitutionalism with traditional isolationist rhetoric and bare-knuckled bigotry disguised as patriotism. He had a knack for promoting racism and anti-Semitism by latching them onto issues with genuine mass appeal, such as the pervasive dislike of banks and taxes.

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