Author warns of home-grown hate seeping into society

By David Moberg
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
January 28, 2003

At a time when Americans are preoccupied with foreign terrorists, Daniel Levitas warns that it is dangerous to ignore the home-grown variety next door, many of whom cheer terrorist attacks on the United States and foment hatred of immigrants in general.

Levitas’ authoritative book, “The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right” (St. Martin’s Press, $26.95), is a chilling, detailed and extensively documented portrayal of the flaky but dangerous right that nurtured Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh and other lesser domestic terrorists.

This same movement of armed racists has also, in Levitas’ opinion, greatly influenced mainstream conservative politics and fanned the embers of bigotry shared beyond the ranks of radical right groups. His book has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

“One of the main arguments of the book is that ideas matter most,” he explained on a recent visit to Chicago. Levitas believes law enforcement officials should crack down more effectively on groups that break the law and engage in violence, and he supports laws that more harshly punish racially motivated violence as well as hate speech that constitutes an imminent threat.

Levitas came across the radical right during the ’80s farm crisis in Iowa when prices crashed and farmers were losing their land. He worked for an organization called Prairie Fire that helped family farmers stage protests to block the sale of farms threatened with foreclosure.

Building coalitions of farmers with union workers, churches and civil rights groups, Prairie Fire also fought for government policies that gave beleaguered rural Iowans a break. But occasionally, as farmers gathered after a successful protest, Levitas recalled, “they would say, ‘Thanks for helping save the farm, but we need to get on to the real problem, the international Jewish conspiracy.’ And I would say, ‘But I’m Jewish.’ ”

In ways like this, long before many other watchdogs or law enforcement officials recognized the challenge, Levitas and a few organizations such as Prairie Fire were discovering how far-right-wing organizations were preying on desperate farmers, preaching racial hatred and often advocating violence while offering a strange mix of crackpot legal nostrums and theological fantasies.

Since then, Levitas, who grew up in New York, then studied environmental advocacy at the University of Michigan, has continued to research and resist the radical right, including a period as director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta during the early 1990s.

His book traces the story of the radical right of the past half-century, reaching back to its roots in racist theories from Europe several centuries ago, as well in the rabid anti-communism of groups like the John Birch Society in the years after World War II.

The principal thread in the book’s narrative is the life and hate-filled thinking of William Gale who died in 1988 as he waited to serve time in prison on a variety of federal charges.

A retired lieutenant colonel and self-described “minister,” Gale drew on older far-right traditions, minus the Hitlerian trappings, to create a distinctly American stew of legal theories challenging the legitimacy of most government institutions, except for the county sheriff. In the process, he tapped into varied longstanding cultural strains of hostility toward the federal government, including states’ rights doctrines of racial segregationists.

He wedded this distinctly American legalism to a cultish religion — known as the Christian Identity doctrine — that identified whites of European ancestry as God’s chosen people, the real “Israelites” of the Bible, not the Jewish “imposters.” Christian Identity asserts that northern Europeans are biologically and theologically superior to Jews, described by Gales as agents of the devil, and non-whites, whom he viewed as “barbaric primitives and descendants of Luciferian aliens from outer space,” according to Levitas.

Although Gale openly, passionately advocated killing blacks and Jews, he significantly redirected right-wing violence toward what he called ZOG, “the Zionist Occupied Government,” and its officials, from judges to Internal Revenue Service agents.

Gale was a failure at forming organizations but widely influential largely because he was able to link his racist legal and religious doctrines to other social movements focused on tax resistance, gun rights, farm failures or immigration.

Emerging right-wingers

“That was Gale’s brilliance,” Levitas said. “He elaborated in full color and three dimensions this legalistic philosophy, and he took the racial militancy of Christian Identity and put it inside the tax protest movement. That radicalized the tax protest movement,” and, in recent years, the gun rights movement.

Gale’s calls for violence contributed to the emergence of a shifting array of armed and dangerous, if often bumbling, right-wing groups — the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s and 1980s, the militias in the 1990s, and many small self-described Christian Patriot groups that continue today. Members of these groups have engaged in shootouts with law enforcement officers, as well as murders of government officials, public figures and random citizens — such as the three-day killing spree by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith over the 1999 4th of July weekend in Chicago and Indiana.

The violence-prone hard core of the radical right may have numbered in the thousands at any one time, but Levitas argues that the audience sympathetic to the ideas and publications of men like Gale has often numbered in the hundreds of thousands and that their impact has been even more widely felt.

He does not favor censoring ideas of the extreme right but Levitas supports using education and political organizing to confront and intellectually defeat them.

“No solution is to be found in legal restrictions on hate speech,” he says, “but there are areas where hate speech becomes like action, such as burning a cross on someone else’s property.”

Diminishing support

Popular support of the radical right diminished somewhat after the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet “those that remain are more hardened in their outlook,” Levitas says. “They’re inclined to believe that Oklahoma City was the work of the U.S. government and that Sept. 11 wasn’t the work of Islamic terrorists but [the Israeli secret service] Mossad operating remote-control airplanes.”

Echoes of these kinds of ideas filter into the mainstream, Levitas believes, sometimes passing through groups like the religious right or gun groups. The result can be an influence on the mainstream conservative movement, he adds. “They shift the political spectrum further to the right, making those that were previously seen as `extreme’ appear to be middle-of-the-road.”

Prominent Republican politicians have also linked themselves to far right causes, Levitas said. He notes that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft broke with longstanding Supreme Court rulings to put the administration behind conservative pro-gun groups’ interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

Radical right campaigns against immigrants, including Latinos and Arabs or Muslims, may become the new flash points for a revival, Levitas speculates, noting the emergence of right-wing paramilitary groups in the Southwest suspected of murdering some immigrant workers.

Despite the propensity to violence of the groups he studies and criticizes, Levitas, a lean and intense man, does not feel there is much personal risk in his work.

“It’s a lot more dangerous being a gay guy coming out of a bar when a frat party is getting out,” he says, “or a black guy in New York when the wrong patrol car comes by, or a guy simply going out for milk in Tel Aviv.”