New York Times
By Mark Silk
Mark Silk directs the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, Hartford.
THE TERRORIST NEXT DOOR
The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.
By Daniel Levitas.
Illustrated. 520 pp. New York:
Thomas Dunne Books/
St. Martin’s Press. $27.95.
SINCE 9/11 it’s been easy to forget that only a few years ago the greatest threat to domestic security seemed to be homegrown extremists. The adherents of Christian Identity, Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations and so on now look like small fry, but Daniel Levitas comes to remind us that the people who gave us Oklahoma City are still out there.
“The Terrorist Next Door” may not be the definitive history it purports to be, but the information it provides is voluminous and, in many cases, new. Levitas has spent much of his career tracking the radical right, first in the Midwest during the farm crisis of the 1980’s and more recently in Atlanta. The journalists who beat a path to his door in the 90’s found him an invaluable source, and what he has to say here is meticulously footnoted to an impressive range of archives, court papers, F.B.I. and state files, obscure radical publications and personal interviews.
His central character is William Potter Gale, a World War II veteran who did more than anyone else to shape the militia movement. Gale, who died in 1988, was a virulent anti-Semite who was descended from Russian Jews, an advocate of armed revolt who made sure never to be caught with a gun in his hand. He had a genius for combining millenarian racial theology with strategies of violent and pseudo-legal resistance to government authority. The groups he inspired signed up thousands of members, and his ideas infected tens of thousands.
Many of the figures who flit through the pages of the book had contact with Gale and his manifestoes, but he himself was not much of a leader. His influence came mostly through others who plagiarized his writings or took over his organizational efforts. Altogether, “The Terrorist Next Door” will do little to disabuse the reader of an image of the extreme right as an assemblage of con men, blowhards, crazies and dimwits. In tracing its checkered fortunes, Levitas doesn’t hesitate to settle some old scores -+with law enforcement officials who did not take the threat from the right seriously enough, with the neoconservative leaders of the Anti-Defamation League in the 1980’s who in his view soft-pedaled the movement’s anti-Semitism to cuddle up to evangelical Protestants who supported Israel.
“The Terrorist Next Door” can be slow going. The cast of characters and acronymic organizations is at times hard to keep straight, the author rarely passes up the opportunity to pursue a digression, and the far-flung and often disorganized nature of the movement makes it hard to wrestle into a single narrative. A 34-page “Reader’s Timeline” helps some.
Levitas’s greatest contribution may be to show how important the now largely forgotten farm crisis was in building support for Gale’s ideas. Some farmers facing ruin seized upon the false hope of saving their farms through legal mumbo jumbo. Foreclosure sales offered occasions for violently confronting the state. More than a generation ago, Daniel Bell’s seminal edited volume, “The Radical Right” (dedicated, interestingly, to Levitas’s grandfather Samuel Levitas, the longtime editor of The New Leader), made the claim that status politics rather than class conflict explained the radical right’s resurgence in postwar America. “The Terrorist Next Door” offers evidence that class — or at least economics — is still relevant in the postindustrial age.
How serious a force is the militia movement today? Its numbers are not great, and its ideology is of limited appeal. Vigilant law enforcement and public exposure by groups dedicated to combating it have worked powerfully to reduce its numbers. But if we have learned anything over the past few years it is that numbers are not necessary to create havoc. “The Terrorist Next Door” offers both essential data for the history of American extremism in our time and a cautionary tale for the future.