'Patriot' criminals and their arsenals

July 05, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- You don't fully appreciate a great piece of police work because the bombs never went off in Phoenix and you aren't reading grim headlines about relatives planning a hundred funerals.

One brave Arizona lawman hooked up with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and infiltrated a little group called the Viper Militia, which had detailed plans and the weapons with which to blow up buildings housing the bureau, the IRS, the Secret Service and other federal agencies. One man's undercover work led to the arrest of 12 men and women whose activities ought to wipe away all doubt that an eerie kind of terrorism has come to America -- from within America.

This little Viper Militia group, of which almost no one had ever heard, had stashed away in one Phoenix house half a ton of ammonium nitrate, 55 gallons of nitromethane, a highly-toxic yellow powder explosive called picric acid, many blasting caps and more than 70 automatic rifles.

This little band of self-styled revolutionaries had, right in residential Phoenix, the ingredients for a bomb at least half as large as the one used to blow up the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Small cells

The evidence mounts that many of the 800 or so ''militia'' groups that have sprung up in this country are amassing caches of explosives and firearms, and that the serious terrorists are operating in units of fewer than a handful of people, so as to prevent infiltration by legitimate lawmen.

Yet FBI and other officials here tell me that Americans as a whole are not yet sufficiently aware of the gravity of the situation. These ''patriot'' criminals are now regularly robbing banks with automatic weapons. They are planning assassinations and all-out attacks on traditional police and military units. They are suspected of the sabotage derailment of an Amtrak train outside Phoenix last October.

Several tough questions arise, not the least being:

Should law-enforcement agencies launch a major drive to take illegal weapons away from all militia members, or would that just fulfill the prophecy of militia leaders who have long cried that the government plots secretly to disarm them? Would weapons seizures just drive more people into clandestine violence?

Should all merchants now be required to keep detailed records of all sales of ammonium nitrate and any other bomb-making compounds?

Nerve-fraying

It is nerve-fraying to learn that one Gary C. Bauer, the ordnance expert for the Vipers, had almost half a ton of this fertilizer at his Phoenix home. Common sense should tell us that a lot of similar groups from one end of America to the other must have been stockpiling explosives.

The simple law of averages also tells me that all our law-enforcement agencies combined, even in a new era of cooperation, will not discover every terrorist cell before its ghastly work is done. There will be more deadly explosions.

Sadly, they may be needed to convince millions of Americans that controlling explosives and guns, especially automatic weapons, is essential to any public sense of safety.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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