To defend our society, we must name its enemies

April 19, 2000|By Chip Berlet

FIVE YEARS AGO today, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck full of homemade explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion was devastating, killing 167 people and wounding more than 750.

Images of heroic rescue workers pulling the mangled bodies of children from the rubble are seared into our psyche. McVeigh is often described as an extremist, but that term masks more than it reveals. More accurately, McVeigh is a right-wing populist, a purveyor of anti-government conspiracy theories, a racist, an anti-Semite and a terrorist.

The most accurate term for him is a neo-Nazi. If we want to defend our society, we must name the enemies of democracy with precision. Some people use "extremist" in a way that blurs the distinction between those who bomb and murder and those who participate in peaceful protests and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

With such loose usage, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Timothy McVeigh could be lumped together. McVeigh's cause was creating a neo-Nazi America, as described in his favorite book, the "Turner Diaries," the story of a heroic racist who bombs a federal building to rally white Americans against a traitorous and tyrannical government supposedly run by crafty Jews and their brutal black allies.

McVeigh wanted militia members to join his vicious and violent struggle. Instead, the bombing horrified many militia members. Some eventually left the militia movement or rejoined a variety of related "patriot" groups. Hard-core ideologues now dominate the dwindling militias, and some units have split over allowing membership by open racists and anti-Semites.

While we can't stop all acts of terrorism, we can help dissuade some potential recruits. First, we should acknowledge that there is some truth to militia complaints that government agents abused their power in deadly confrontations with the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

We should support more thorough investigations of both incidents. Second, while the militia theory of a New World Order being imposed by jackbooted U.N. troops arriving in black helicopters is ludicrous, it is true that globalization of the economy is causing many of our neighbors to fall down the economic ladder.

A public debate on linking globalization to economic fairness would challenge conspiracy theorists and those proposing solutions using bullets and bombs.

Third, we also need more public discussion of how the Constitution requires equal rights for all. Some in the militias resent the demands of the civil-rights, feminist and gay-rights movements and the government's enforcement of the law. Even if they harbor such resentments, they still need to find more constructive ways to participate in society than performing night maneuvers with guns.

When we ignore societal grievances, we fail in our obligation to the eternal and vigilant defense of liberty. We need to consider dissident ideas openly in public conversations, discussing those that have merit. We also need to rebut any inaccuracies, rebuke claims based on bigotry and reaffirm goals of equality, fairness and democratic process.

That's the best way to commemorate the Oklahoma City tragedy.

Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-area think tank that studies scapegoating and authoritarianism (Web site He wrote this article for Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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