What Is the Main Danger?
— The Editors
APRIL 19 IN Oklahoma City was far from the first murderous act of right-wing terror in this country -- quite the contrary -- but it is the first time that randomly selected people were killed in massive numbers in an indiscriminate attack. African American families were terrorized for decades by night riders in the Deep South; civil rights workers were assassinated; lesbians and gay men are perpetual targets; immigrants are harassed and assaulted; and abortion clinics and service providers have been subject to firebombing and shotgun murder. In a few cases over the years, there have been assassinations of left-wing political activists -- although the vast bulk of violence and murder directed at domestic revolutionary dissidents, notably the Black Panther Party, has been the work of official police agencies of the state.
The vast majority of decent people have always been revolted by lynching, gay-bashing and the killing of abortion service providers; but few white, heterosexual, non-activist U.S. citizens have felt personally threatened by them. Oklahoma City brings the whole country face to face with the presence of extreme right-wing terror of a classic type -- wrapping itself in a patriotic mantle, motivated by hatred of ordinary people outside its own circle, and armed with heavy weaponry, explosives and above all with its visions of all-encompassing conspiracies.
In this issue of Against the Current, Christopher Phelps discusses some of the dimensions of this armed extreme right and what makes it (pardon the expression) tick. Here, we will focus on the broader context of the events, and on the opportunities and dangers arising in their aftermath.
It is necessary for the left to understand and to emphasize, first and foremost, that the most dangerous threat to basic rights in the United States comes from the state. We say this in full awareness of the very real menace posed by the armed extreme right wing, by the Christian Coalition and by assorted anti-choice, nativist and homophobic forces. But all this must be kept in proper perspective.
Start with Waco. If the April 19, 1993 massacre at the Branch Davidian compound has fuelled the conspiracy-paranoid theories of the far right, this doesn't change the reality: As the left pointed out at the time (perhaps not emphatically enough), Waco was an act of mass murder perpetrated by the Clinton administration. It makes no real difference who set the fire; the deaths occurred simply because the government was committed to a display of force for its own sake.
The Justice Department, FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol/Tobacco/Firearms never offered any remotely satisfactory reason for the initial thuggish and incompetent BATF raid, let alone the final assault -- beyond Janet Reno's claim that child sexual abuse was occurring, a wholly uncorroborated allegation for which the human evidence was incinerated. (Reno herself may have been taken in by stories fed to her by elements in the FBI who were seeking authorization for the assault.)
Without expressing any sympathy for the philosophy or internal cult life of the Koresh Davidian group, we never saw any evidence that it had engaged in actions or undertook conspiracies that menaced anyone beyond its compound. They collected weapons, but it has never been the socialist position that the capitalist state should have the monopoly on ownership of firearms in society. BATF was called in on the grounds that the group was stockpiling illegal weapons, but there was and is no evidence for this aside from FBI allegations.
If the state behaves as it did in Waco toward a group simply because of its weird lifestyle, how will it act toward actual dissident movements or potential opposition populations? One need only look at the "omnibus counter-terrorism" legislation promulgated by the administration. This legislation will greatly expand the powers of the same forces who created, among other atrocities, the Waco massacre.
The bill was unveiled after the Oklahoma City bombing, but in all likelihood mostly drafted earlier, at the same time that Clinton banned the operations of several Middle East-related fundraising organizations, Middle East-related fundraising organizations, some of them guilty of nothing more than vocal opposition to the Israel-PLO accord.
What this monstrous legislation would do, as summarized in a release from the ACLU, is to:
"Allow the government to deport aliens who have been convicted of no crime, based on information known only to the government;
"Grant to the President the power to freeze the assets of, and bar contributions to, unpopular organizations proclaimed by the President to be `detrimental to the interests of the United States,' and bar judicial review of such actions;
"Allow the government to deport aliens who contribute to the legal, non-violent, even charitable activities of organizations or governments that are unpopular with the U.S. government;
"Subject U.S. citizens to lengthy prison sentences and fines for contributing to the legal, non-violent, even charitable activities of organizations or governments unpopular with the U.S. government, unless they first meet extraordinarily onerous licensing requirements;
"Expand federal wiretapping activity in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment; permit FBI investigations that are not based on evidence of criminal activity;
"Allow the permanent detention of aliens who have been convicted of no crime; and violate the fundamental protection of equal protection of the law by making aliens, but not citizens who engage in the very same conduct, responsible for a wide range of federal crimes."
Had this kind of legislation been on the books for the past twenty years, it could likely have been used to criminalize fundraising and advocacy for the Irish Republican cause or for the Salvadoran popular and revolutionary movement; to deport the LA Nine (eight Palestinians and a Kenyan targeted by the Reagan-Bush administrations for their support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) as well as numerous other Palestinians; or going back further, to prosecute anti-war activists who had contacts with North Vietnamese or National Liberation Front leaders during the Vietnam war. Indeed, it might have enabled the Reagan administration to succeed in its efforts to deport South African exile activist Dennis Brutus, and to suppress anti-apartheid fundraising and solidarity efforts for the African National Congress.
This legislation is clearly not intended to defend society from the actual, present terrorism of the domestic extreme armed right. For many years the FBI infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, but an FBI informant was present in the car with the shotgun assassins of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. Both the FBI and BATF had intimate advance knowledge of the Nazi-Klan plans for the massacre of anti-Klan marchers in Greensboro, North Carolina in November 1979.
In that notorious instance, Ed Dawson, an informant for both the FBI and Greensboro police, led the Nazi and Klan gunmen to the site of the march. Bernard Butkovich, working for the BATF--a figure whose role was never fully revealed, since he was not called to testify in the ensuing trials--was actually a central organizer of the Nazi-Klan alliance called the United Racist Front!
Instead of a tool to combat domestic terrorism, the clear intent of this bill is to chill political organizing and solidarity work in this country. It is dramatically worse than any law proposed by the Bush, Reagan or Nixon administrations, with all their repressive acts and police-state wet dreams.
Does society need to be protected from the extreme-right menace? The answer is decisively yes; and just as clearly, that defense will not come from the political establishment or the government. It can come only from society itself; and the atrocity in Oklahoma City presents a certain moment of opportunity to organize that defense.
First and most important is the work of publicly and politically exposing just who the armed far right is, and what it stands for on all fronts. The fact that the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing were ordinary people, randomly selected, brings home for the first time to tens of millions of Americans that this armed extreme right is a threat to them.
This means that the extreme-right, self-declared "Patriot" movement can be isolated. We don't yet know the full extent of the conspiracy behind the Oklahoma City atrocity, but it is already clear that those who carried it out were inspired by this movement's teachings.
No matter how twisted they may be as individuals, they must have sensed some social wind in their sails--felt that some segment of society would sympathize with their action. That illusion did have some material basis: The leadership of the far right has succeeded in creating a semi-organized periphery, e.g. the "militia" movement and its sympathizers, by cloaking themselves in the populist mantle of hostility to intrusive government.
Now, because Oklahoma City reveals the true face of the extreme right, a mass revulsion against these types can strip away much of that periphery. The crisis of the "militia" milieu was revealed when the head of the Michigan Militia was forced out after claiming that the Oklahoma bombing was committed by the Japanese government (in retaliation for the Tokyo subway poison gas attack, which he said was committed by the CIA!). A May 13 "Gunstock" rally outside Detroit was attended by a couple of thousand people, a fraction of the mass turnout its organizers had advertised.
Once brought into the light of day, the conspiracy theories of the lunatic right can be exposed for their comical absurdity (such as the idea that the United Nations, a palpably dying institution, is an emerging "world government" that must be resisted by armed citizens).
Second, it must be the left that consistently defends civil liberties and democratic rights. This includes, of course, the rights of expression and fundraising for Irish Republican, Palestinian and other liberation movements. Shutting down the rights of those movements in this country is the first step toward choking off domestic dissent.
Defense of these rights also includes the rights of expression for views that we on the left find repugnant. It is crucial to insist on the distinction between the expression of opinion and organizing or carrying out acts of violent intimidation. This includes the rights of the Branch Davidians, and for that matter the right of anti-choice creeps to picket abortion clinics--while criminalizing any blockage of access to them. Progressive movements must remain committed to defeating these views and those who present them, without recourse to state regulation on expression of opinion.
Finally and most important, of course, is rebuilding the social movements of working class and oppressed people, and creating a political culture of solidarity among them. Nothing less than that can embody the desperately necessary total alternative to the entire right wing--its extremist armed sectors and the Christian Coalition fanatics, to be sure, but also its Rush Limbaughs, Newt Gingriches and Bill Clintons.
The capitalist crisis and its consequences--falling living standards, collapsing cities, crime--produces the climate in which the far right has been able to organize a substantial periphery in the form of the Militia movement, the Promise Keepers and the multifarious expressions of Christian conservatism. In the absence of mass movements of progressive opposition, the entire political spectrum can only shift further to the right, producing uglier social and cultural repression at its center and an incipient fascist politics at its edge.
ATC 57, July-August 1995