The Blood-Dimmed Tide is Loosed
The Terrorist Next Door reviewed by Martin A. Lee, Martin A. Lee is the author of “The Beast Reawakens,” a book on, neofascism.
Los Angeles Times
February 16, 2003
Reasonable people may scoff at right-wing extremists who claim that black helicopter sightings herald a U.N.-led military takeover of the United States. But we do ourselves a serious disservice if we regard militia cadres and their progenitors merely as fringe elements and ignore the extent to which their one-world, don’t-tread-on-me phobias dovetail with widely held suspicions and deep-rooted anxieties.
Daniel Levitas, author of “The Terrorist Next Door,” an exemplary history of America’s home-grown radical right, cautions against underestimating the threat posed by hate groups and hard-core fellow travelers, who, though relatively few in number, have nonetheless succeeded in influencing aspects of mainstream politics and discourse. Today, there are millions of Americans who think that the United States is in imminent danger of surrendering its sovereignty to a shadowy, globalist clique that covertly controls the “New World Order.” Some even subscribe to the conviction that citizens must arm themselves to stop a tyrannical government from usurping their constitutional rights.
Consider this small but telling incident recounted by Levitas. In May 1994, Oklahoma legislators ratified dubious conspiracy theories when the state House passed a resolution urging Congress to “cease any support for the establishment of a ‘new world order’ [and to] refrain from taking any further steps toward the economic or political merger of the United States into a world body or any form of world government.” Obsessed by similar ideas, a fanatic named Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building a year later.
For most Americans, the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City came like a bolt from the blue. But something ominous had long been brewing in the heartland. The massacre on April 19, 1995, differed in scope, but not in kind, from a persistent drumbeat of far-right violence that had been building for some time, as Levitas documents in his definitive, tightly woven chronicle.
“The Terrorist Next Door” describes the birth of the gun-toting vigilante organization known as the Posse Comitatus and the development of the modern paramilitary right. Much of this copiously researched saga revolves around Posse founder William Potter Gale (1916-1988), a Christian Identity pastor with a rap sheet, whose virulent white supremacist sermons inspired a rogues’ gallery of malcontents, including such notable recruits as Richard Butler, leader of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations. Levitas credits Gale with introducing the notion of “unorganized citizens’ militias” that became a hallmark of the Christian Patriot movement in the 1990s.
Nourished by the odiferous compost of paranoia and hate that has long moldered on the American margins, Gale linked the Posse’s ideas and values to centuries-old racist myths and anti-Semitic prejudices. The Jews, he insisted, were not actually the chosen people, but impostors who had descended from Khazar tribes in Central Asia and subsequently migrated to Europe. Christian Aryans, according to Gale, were the true ancient Israelites who forged a sacred covenant with God.
In a bizarre and unexpected twist, it turns out that Gale’s family was Jewish. The Gales fled Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism and settled in the United States in the late 1800s. “Bill Gale was a Jewish anti-Semite who spent a lifetime trying to convince other anti-Semites that they, too, were Jews,” writes Levitas. “As for his real Jewish identity, it was a secret he kept hidden” lest it ruin his career as a professional white supremacist.
Gale cut his teeth as a right-wing militant in the early 1950s, when fervent anti-communism provided a convenient cover for racist opposition to civil rights. He was particularly disdainful of conventional conservatives who refused to acknowledge the “Jewish roots” of Bolshevism — a canard repeatedly invoked by Gale and other American anti-Semites, who helped set the stage for the Hollywood blacklist by alleging that Jewish film moguls used motion pictures to spread communism. “One cannot divorce the explosion of anti-Communism in the 1950s from the decades of Jew-hatred that preceded it,” Levitas observes. Gale hardly blazed new trails when he harangued his acolytes to take up arms to defend segregation, root out communist subversion and resist the evils of federal authority. But Gale would soon distinguish himself by fashioning a unique, American-sounding ideology that mixed muddled arguments for anti-big-government constitutionalism with traditional isolationist rhetoric and bare-knuckled bigotry disguised as patriotism. He had a knack for promoting racism and anti-Semitism by latching them onto issues with genuine mass appeal, such as the pervasive dislike of banks and taxes.
When Gale launched the Posse Comitatus in the early 1970s, he tailored much of his message to the fledgling right-wing tax protest movement. Railing against the “Karl Marx-inspired socialist income tax,” he maintained that the American Revolution began as an anti-tax insurgency. Actually, the Boston Tea Party was a protest against “taxation without representation,” and Gale was an outspoken enemy of representative democracy as well as ethnic pluralism. Nevertheless, as Levitas argues, echoes of Gale’s anti-tax dogma reverberated years later in legislation that drastically weakened the IRS and guaranteed a sharp decline in audits of wealthy Americans and big corporations.
The Posse gathered momentum as the farm crisis in the Midwest deepened in the 1980s. A devastating combination of low prices, high interest rates and plummeting land values resulted in an epidemic of foreclosures and bankruptcies throughout rural America. More than 750,000 family farms went under during this period. The financial contagion was directly related to political decisions made in Washington that favored huge agribusinesses that dominated the market.
Levitas traces the rise and fall of the American Agriculture Movement, a grass-roots effort that initially supported reasonable policy proposals, including price supports and other forms of government intervention on behalf of debt-ridden farmers. Then the Posse Comitatus came along and spread its poison among the movement’s members. The struggle for economic justice veered off course as thinly disguised white supremacist propaganda channeled legitimate concerns toward a spurious international Jewish plot.
Traversing the farm belt, Gale and other Posse proselytizers offered scapegoats and snake-oil solutions to desperate folks who were aching for someone to blame. According to Gale’s contorted interpretation of the monetary and legal system, people did not have to file income tax returns or repay bank loans because Federal Reserve notes were not backed by gold and silver. It was the American Dream in black light — everything pointed toward a conspiracy so immense, a cabal so sinister and a future so bleak that armed rebellion seemed like the only viable response to off-the-grid farmers like Gordon Kahl.
A Posse Comitatus activist and tax protester, Kahl died in a 1983 Arkansas gun battle with law enforcement officials several months after he had shot and killed two federal marshals. The following year, Robert Matthews, head of the Order, a neo-Nazi terrorist cell weaned on Christian Identity theology, succumbed to a hail of FBI bullets. These men were lionized by Gale as martyrs to the anti-government cause, and their deaths became the stuff of latter-day frontier legends that promise personal salvation and national regeneration through violence.
Despite a proven penchant for bloodshed, the Posse Comitatus was largely ignored by government officials as it grew into a sprawling, national network during the 1980s with 15,000 adherents and perhaps as many as 10 times more supporters, according to Levitas. The task of countering the Posse’s pernicious influence was instead taken up by progressive farm support groups, such as Prairie Fire and Rural America. Levitas worked with these groups throughout the 1980s as they waged a vigorous campaign against hatred in the heartland.
Like a super-virus that mutates to accommodate changes in its habitat, the Posse continually reinvented itself. After the farm crisis, Gale’s minions metamorphosed into the post-Cold War militia movement. The militias broadened the appeal of the Christian Patriot subculture and ensured the survival of Gale’s catechism — albeit in a new and somewhat softer form. The main goal of the militias was to establish private armies throughout the country to resist enforcement of federal gun control laws. During its heyday in the mid-1990s, the militia milieu attracted a gaggle of guerrilla warrior wannabes who parroted the Posse line on jettisoning one’s Social Security card and driver’s license because the Constitution endowed them with sovereign citizenship and the right to travel. Timothy McVeigh lived and breathed these ideas in the extreme.
Smitten by the vision of a reborn “Constitutional Republic,” McVeigh felt justified in massacring hundreds of fellow Americans. His perverse, messianic mind-set was similar in many respects to that of the Al Qaeda zealots who destroyed the World Trade Center three months after McVeigh was executed in prison. Since Sept. 11, there has been no shortage of volatile issues for hate groups to inflame and exploit. While bracing for the next terrorist strike from Al Qaeda, we should not downplay the likelihood that another McVeigh will emerge from the bowels of the Christian Patriot movement, which, Levitas warns, is here with us to stay, in one form or another.