Robert Downes 8/24/09
A Bear Trap for Homegrown Terrorists
When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred E. Murrah Building in April, 1995, Americans were rattled and outraged by photos of 168 deaths, including children killed in a nearby daycare. But the Oklahoma City Bombing was nowhere near the bees nest kicked up by the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001.
Thats because America has always had a tolerance for paramilitary types, white supremacists, skinheads and political extremists dating back to the raiders of Bloody Kansas in the 1850s and the Ku Klux Klan. Weve tossed Arab farmers into Guantanamo Prison for eight years without trial on the mere suspicion of being terrorists, yet there is no Gitmo for our own home-grown terrorists.
In contrast to the Muslims, Americas domestic terrorists are largely considered to be colorful characters playing soldier, whose stockpiling of weapons and talk of bringing down the government is not only tolerated like a post-Kindergarten version of show and tell, but even tacitly encouraged and egged on by the Rush Limbaugh Jrs. of talk radio or the Glenn Becks of Fox News.
So when one of these guys shoots a doctor in church, as was the case with George Tiller in May; or kills a guard at the Holocaust Museum, as was the fate of museum guard Stephen Johns in June, it makes the news for a couple of days and then people move on until the next school massacre, or whatever.
Currently, the militia movement is on the rise again, largely because we have a black, liberal president in the White House. As columnist Frank Rich noted in the New York Times, we have the same climate of right-wing paranoia in America today as we did in the early 60s when the John Birch Society and other extremists went bananas over the Catholic liberal John F. Kennedy in office.
Today, bogus stories of Death Panels circulate among gullible people who are looking for more drama in their dreary lives; back in the early 60s, it was fear of fluoridation as part of a grand plot of world domination hatched by communists. And remember all those fears the militiamen of the 90s had of FEMA concentration camps, or having microchips implanted in their butts by the Clinton Administration? Same crowd, different story line.
It would be funny if it werent for the fact that the threat of another OK City Bombing looms, or another Lee Harvey Oswald.
But some things have changed significantly since the OK City Bombing, particularly in the realm of law enforcement.
One important thing to remember today -- both for paramilitary types and the general public -- is that what broke the militia movement of the 1990s wasnt apathy by its members or media attention. It was Americas tough conspiracy laws.
Conspiracy laws are used to break up organized criminal enterprises and can be used for anything from wildlife poachers, to tax resisters, to the Chicago 7 trial of left-wing radicals in 1969. Under the law, a conspiracy is any act or agreement by two or more people to commit a crime that will further the conspiracy.
These laws were tailor-made for busting terrorists, including the homegrown variety.
As a member of the 51st Missouri Militia told me in a 1996 interview in Kansas City, the militia movement of that time quickly learned that under the law, if you hear about your buddies planning to blow up a building or assassinate a public official, you are guilty of conspiracy and will face the same homicide charges even if you dont participate. Unless you rat out your friends, that is, and become a witness against them in some sort of plea bargain.
We dont allow any criminal activity in our militia and were strictly forbidden to make bombs or convert weapons to automatic fire, he said at the time. He mentioned a Kansas militia group that disbanded because a member felt compelled to alert the FBI to talk of a bomb plot in order to save his own skin.
Conspiracy extends to felony murder outside of politically-motivated acts. As the current issue of Newsweek notes, Brandon Hein of Calfornia has spent the past 14 years in prison on a life sentence because at the age of 18, he happened to be a drunken bystander when one of his friends stabbed another teenager to death during a marijuana deal that went wrong. According to the felony-murder rule, all participants in a felony can be held equally culpable, including those who did no harm, possessed no weapon, and didnt intend to hurt anyone, Newsweek reports.
So today, playing soldier in a militia or skinhead group comes with significant risks. Even if your friends are just kidding about -- oh -- attacking Fort Mead, or shooting up synagogues, you may face life in prison for just hearing those words and not reporting them. At least, thats the case for the losers who plotted those two incidents and were busted by the FBI.
Then too, law enforcement is a lot more sophisticated today than in 1995 when few of us had ever heard of an ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bomb.
After the OK City Bombing and the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, many police departments across the country began receiving training in anti-terrorism and hostage measures. This training accelerated after 9/11, with organizations such as Blackwater instructing thousands of officers at its camp in South Carolina.
And give the Bush Administration credit: they also broke down the communication barriers between various law enforcement agencies to allow for the sharing of information on terrorist groups. And who knows what sort of surveillance is going on under the PATRIOT Act?
Then theres new surveillance on bank records, money laundering, the ingredients for fertilizer bombs, and Internet web sites... You could write a book on this subject, but in short, its a lot riskier being a member of a violent paramilitary group today than it was in 1995.
Fears of the rising tide of extremism make for good talking points on the Rachel Maddow Show or for the fundraising efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center (which keeps track of these groups), but in the wake of 9/11, loose talk about mass murder and mayhem by any organized gang is on par with sticking your foot in a loaded bear trap.
But of course, thats just what one expects from the soldiers of lunacy.