They're out there, all right, but are the extremists us?

Books

January 06, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

How can any human being do what they did? Those rational anxieties are close to the core of the terrorism besetting most thinking people since Sept. 11.

The outpouring of books related to 9 / 11 -- new, revived, reorganized, re-edited, memorial -- has been enormous. I commend Scott Shane's excellent survey of some of them on this page. No single volume, however, can provide the help that many people feel they need to overcome the unknown and the incomprehensible. Allow me to suggest one that, for strange and almost whimsical reasons, I find helps a lot. It is Them: Adventures with Extremists, by Jon Ronson (Simon and Schuster, 330 pages, $24).

Ronson is a British journalist and documentary filmmaker who spent much of the last several years investigating extremists. At the end of his quest, he reached this conclusion:

"I found that they had one belief in common: that a tiny elite rules the world from inside a secret room. It is they who start wars, I was told, elect and cast out the heads of state, control Hollywood and the markets and the flow of capital, operate a harem of underage kidnapped sex slaves, transform themselves into twelve-foot lizards when nobody is looking, and destroy the credibility of any investigator who gets too close to the truth."

In most of his efforts, Ronson presented himself as a reporter, and was accepted as an earnest witness. He writes about what he heard and saw with extraordinary humane attention and even affection. The fabric of his narrative is a delightful, confiding breeziness -- often very, very funny -- yet he fills it with very precise reporting.

The resulting gravity reveals the capacity of comprehensible humans to feel denied, marginalized, humiliated by established power -- and to be driven far enough to want to fight back.

The first chapter recounts Ronson's encounters with Omar Bakri Mohammed, who claimed to be Osama bin Laden's "man in Britain." Omar works toward a jihad to bring down the British government in favor of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Cunning, he befriends Ronson, at one point taking him to a terrorist training camp in England, and there exposes him as a Jew. Ultimately, through Ronson's reporting, Omar comes off as ridiculous albeit wily. He was ineffective politically, though clearly had a homicidal mind.

Ronson also spent time with the head of the Ku Klux Klan, with the survivors of the so-called Ruby Ridge Siege, at an Aryan Nation encampment, at an annual gathering of the shadowy Bilderberg Group. He spent eight days in darkest Africa with the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, the Presbyterian firebrand leader of the extremist elements of Northern Ireland's unionists. Paisley is certain that the pope is leading a vast international conspiracy to run the world.

There is much else. The circumstances and the personalities vary vastly. Some are violent; others seem more absurd than truly threatening

The most intense insights into the nature of the extremist mind, I believe, come in Ronson's patient listening to members of the Weaver family of Ruby Ridge fame -- or infamy. Randy and Vicki Weaver had moved with their small children, in the 1980s, to the top of one of the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho. Randy had been a Green Beret. He and especially his wife believed that the world was in danger of being taken over by "them" -- an almost universal term that serves, of course, as the book's title.

The Weavers spent time with others of like mind, and Randy was induced by a federal agent to commit a minor arms offense. Resisting service of a warrant, the Weavers precipitated a siege by federal and state law-enforcement forces -- at a cost of a million dollars a day. A bloodbath ensued. U.S. Marshals shot Sammy, one of the Weaver sons. His brother fired back, killing a marshal. A federal sniper shot Vicki through the head as she held their 10-month-old baby in the doorway of their plywood cabin.

The family became martyred heroes. Ronson suggests that Ruby Ridge had a profound influence on the destructive fire at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, which in turn fueled the motivation of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

Ronson's account is a movingly sensitive exploration of the humanness of these people. They are quirky, maybe nuts, sometimes dangerous -- but comprehensible, and if left alone probably harmless in their intent.

In his final chapter, reported in July 2000, Ronson infiltrates the 121st performance of "Cremation of Care" -- a spoof ritual that is part of the two-week annual festivities of Bohemian Grove, a club of highly placed men in business and government that is cited by many extremists as "them." The whole chapter has electric energy.

Ronson concludes: "My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed to be trapped in their college years. ... 'Let's face it,' my Deep Throat has said to me, 'nobody rules the world anymore. The markets rule the world. Maybe that's why your conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things. Because the truth is so much more frightening. Nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything.' "

That's closer to the rational truth -- perhaps -- than the acute anxieties and imagined global conspiracies of the majority of the extremists Ronson sought out. But in a time when terrorism has affected all of us, there is importance -- and, I find, some relief -- in exploring the people behind the rhetoric and the violence. Jon Ronson is a splendid tour guide.

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