The Explosive Rise of an Armed Far Right
— Christopher Phelps
AFTER RESCUE WORKERS had finished sifting the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building for evidence, 167 deaths were recorded, among them the crushed, twisted bodies of infants dropped off for morning day care just before the bomb detonated.
If the plot unfolded as it now seems, then the explosion was the work of Timothy J. McVeigh, 27, and Terry Nichols, 40. Nichols' brother James, 41, may have aided in the crime, though a federal judge ordered him released from custody in May. McVeigh reportedly acknowledges that he carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, but he does not think himself guilty of any crime. His clothing carried traces of explosives.
McVeigh and the Nichols brothers are part of the insurrectionary far right, a fringe but growing movement that fears a cabal is on the verge of wresting control of the federal government and imposing a totalitarian "New World Order" on the United States. For the far right, April 19, 1995, was a potent date: the second anniversary of the assault by federal officers on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas; execution day for a white supremacist found guilty of murdering a Black police officer and a Jewish businessman in Texarkana, Arkansas; and the anniversary of the battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
Add to that list the grotesque crime of Oklahoma City, which much of the far right is now busy rationalizing as the work of elite conspirators out to frame the "patriot" movement, and it is safe to say that April 19 has become the May Day of the American far right insurrectionists who like to call themselves "free white men" and "Sons of Liberty."
Sgt. McVeigh, Avenger
When eighty true believers and their spiritual leader David Koresh died in the conflagration at Waco, most of the nation was appalled at the inept handling of the situation by federal officials, who inexplicably stormed the compound after a fifty-one-day standoff. But popular sympathy for those inside the compound was limited by the group's cult of leadership, superheated Biblical ranting, and stockpiling of arms, not to mention Koresh's apparent pleasure in sleeping with his followers' pre-adolescent girls.
The far right, however, saw the federal assault on apocalyptic Christians at Waco as an attack on their own. Timothy McVeigh, like many far right "constitutionalists," made a pilgrimage to Waco to view the charred sight. Trained as a gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, McVeigh served with Terry Nichols in the Army's First Infantry Division until 1989, when Nichols was discharged because of an undisclosed family emergency.
A cold, solitary, model soldier, McVeigh was decorated for his service in the Persian Gulf war. He took an early discharge in 1992 after failing a psychological test on the second day of a training program to join the Green Berets, his great ambition. That crushed him, precipitating a severe mental and physical deterioration and accelerating a move to the far right already well underway.
In the military, McVeigh is known to have subscribed to Soldier of Fortune and read the Nazi fantasy novel by William Pierce, The Turner Diaries,<D> in which white racists wage a struggle to overthrow the government. The novel, which culminates in genocide against Jews and Blacks, contains a scene with a bombing remarkably similar to Oklahoma City.
McVeigh's platoon was notorious for being highly polarized along racial lines in an already polarized company. When promoted to sergeant in advance of his cohort, McVeigh began to assign dirty work, such as sweeping out the motor pool, to the few Black specialists in the twirty-two-member platoon, even though such work would ordinarily have gone to privates.
"I don't know if there's such a word, but he was ill-political," Sgt. Royal L. Witcher, who served in McVeigh's Bradley vehicle in the Gulf War and was his housemate afterward, told the New York Times. "There was at least one thing in each paper he read each day that the government had something to do with that he took issue with. Like gays in the military."
After leaving the military, McVeigh led a nomadic existence, ranging from Kingman, Arizona, to his home town near Buffalo, New York. He advertised under the pseudonym Tim Tuttle in the classifieds of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby's organ The Spotlight, and wrote several fiery letters to the editor of mainstream papers in western New York. "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system?<170> he wrote. "I hope it doesn't come to that. But it might."
McVeigh had episodic contact with the Michigan Militia. A more significant connection between McVeigh and the organized far right appears to have run through an Oklahoma white supremacist, Rev. Robert Millar, the leader of a crudely fashioned 400-acre compound in eastern Oklahoma called Elohim City.
Millar's sect adheres to Christian Identity, the white supremacist religion which has gained tremendous headway on the far right in the past twenty years. Identity theology interprets the Bible to say that Jews are children of Satan and people of color "mud people," subhuman and soulless.
Federal sources told the Washington Post that McVeigh made a phone call to Millar "four minutes" after calling Ryder Truck Rentals on April 5 to reserve the vehicle he would later pack with 4,800 pounds of explosives, ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel
fuel before driving to Oklahoma City.
In addition to the phone call, circumstantial connections link McVeigh to Elohim City. In 1993, McVeigh was cited for a traffic violation just a few miles from the Millar compound. And in January 1995, McVeigh's younger sister Jennifer, who shares his far right views, began subscribing to the Patriot Report, published by Elohim City associate George Eaton.
Millar's past makes the potential link between Elohim City and the terrorism of April 19 more than plausible. Millar was "spiritual advisor" to Richard Wayne Snell, the racist murderer executed in Arkansas on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. Millar was present at Snell's execution and took his remains back to Elohim City for burial.
Millar was also a close ally in the mid-1980s of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), a now-defunct neo-Nazi group that maintained a compound in northern Arkansas. The CSA was involved in a spree of assassinations, bank robberies, and natural gas line bombings in the West and Midwest. In 1983 the CSA made plans, never carried out, to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building. Snell, a CSA member, helped formulate that plan.
The CSA was one of the most violent white supremacist centers of the 1980s. Like The Order, it was tied to the Idaho-based Aryan Nations. That may not be coincidental, either: While the numbers of skinhead Nazis have plummeted in the last year and the Klans are in disarray, Aryan Nations, Christian Identity and the militia are all on the rise.
Under leaders Richard Butler and Louis Beam, Aryan Nations organized in twelve new states in the past year, a striking comeback after declining to a barebones existence in only three states. It has brought other white supremacist groups into a grand alliance under its wing, including Gerhard Laude, whose National Socialist German Workers Party -- Overseas Organization (NSDAP-AO) is the top distributor of white power literature to Europe.
Millar claims that he never knew McVeigh or talked to him, and the exact extent of McVeigh's attachment to Elohim City remains strong. At the very least, it would appear that the execution of Snell and anniversary of Waco provided a dual motive and inspiration for Timothy McVeigh to pick April 19 as a date of revenge. McVeigh's fake driver's license, used to rent the Ryder truck, bore the Waco date of April 19, 1993; and his reported self-description as a "prisoner of war<170> is the same phrase that Snell applied to himself in the newsletter he issued from prison prior to his execution on April 19, 1995.
Militias: Angry, White, Armed
The Oklahoma City bombing has at last brought to public light the problem of the armed far right. Most of the coverage focused on armed "militia" movements that have cropped up in at least thirty states. With few notable exceptions this coverage, even in the left press, has downplayed or ignored the connections -- particularly strong in origin and leadership -- between the militias and the white supremacist right.
The militia movement is an em<->bryonic mass force more than a cluster of groups, an amalgam that is more than the sum of its parts. Its dynamic and open-ended character gives it a greater vibrancy and potential than the Nazi cells, Klan sects and Identity groups which helped to spawn it, provided it with leadership, and continue to move within it.
The movement's ranks are filled with militant gun owners hungry to act out their paramilitary fantasies. Not all are instilled with racism, but they comprise a base ripe for indoctrination by far right leaders linked to white supremacist networks around the country.
Militias trace to prior insurrectionary right formations by a great deal more than shared survivalist undercurrents and conspiracy theories. The militias are a tactical innovation that trace directly to an October, 1992 meeting in Colorado called by a Christian Identity minister, Pete Peters, where 160 Aryan Nations, Klan, Posse Comitatus, Populist Party and Christian Identity representatives met for three days to hammer out a common strategy for the far right in the aftermath of the bloody shootout between federal agents and white supremacist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
That episode, to be sure, was a flagrant abuse of government power in which federal snipers killed Weaver's son and wife. (Weaver himself has been acquitted of the main charges against him.) It was also a call to arms for the racist right. At the Colorado summit, a range of white supremacist groups agreed to suspend their infighting and collaborate in the formation of "constitutional militias."
Present at that meeting, for example, was John Trochmman, who soon afterward formed the Militia of Montana, the flagship of the movement. Trochmman has admitted to visiting the Aryan Nations compound "four or five times." The M.O.M. has defended Arkansas white supremacist Richard Snell's innocence in its publication, Taking Aim, explicitly linking his execution to Waco. An M.O.M. fax sent out around the nation just before April 19 called for unspecified patriot action on that day.
The militia innovation was a tremendous shot in the arm for the far right, partly out of pure luck. The turn brought great numbers of new recruits into the far right by tapping popular resentment in two areas: gun control and environmental regulation. Just months after the Colorado meeting came the attack at Waco; then in 1994, the Brady bill and assault weapons ban.
Simultaneously, the militia language of "constitutionalism" and individual sovereignty won it considerable support from small property owners in the West who think the federal government should have no right to restrict or regulate grazing, logging or mining -- not even on federal lands.
The militia are the subject of massive press coverage, both because they actively seek publicity and because they were the first known connection among McVeigh, the Nichols brothers and the far right (the Elohim City connection is still not widely recognized). Soon after his discharge from the military, in fall 1993, McVeigh was reunited with his old Army buddy Terry Nichols at the Nichols brothers' 200-acre farm in the thumb of Michigan. Together the three attended meetings of the Michigan Militia. In January 1995, McVeigh again visited Michigan, where he attended a militia meeting in Jackson.
The Nichols brothers are Christian Patriots -- believers in a worldview that grew out of the Posse Comitatus of the 1970s. It holds that "the United States is a republic, not a democracy" (a traditional old-right formulation), that God's law should be reflected in civil law, that paper currency is unconstitutional, and that there is no legitimate law enforcement above the level of county sheriff.
"Patriots" see themselves as "natural citizens of the American republic," and refuse to carry drivers' licenses, register their cars, let the state sanctify their marriages, or in any other way recognize the legitimacy of government power at levels higher than the county.
The Centrality of Racism
Often referred to by unwary reporters as tax protesters, constitutionalists or "anti-government" activists, Christian Patriots are explicitly racist in their theology and politics. Everyone on the Christian right mixes politics and theology, and many conservative evangelicals favor a theocracy, but the far right is distinguished by its explicit white supremacy.
Christian Patriots take Jews to be the supreme enemy, the "anti-Christ," and people of color to be the Jews' pawns. Ever since the early electoral inroads of David Duke, however, the far right has become more media savvy. Publicly they call themselves "white separatists" or "patriots." That soft sell does nothing to diminish the racist character of the far right's internal life.
"We would talk about how we didn't hate people, we loved the white race, we weren't supremacists, we were separatists," says Floyd Cochran, a high-ranking Aryan Nations defector. "That way you've pacified people . . . But it doesn't alter anything. When the media cameras are no longer around, everybody's a supremacist."
Leaders of the Michigan Militia, for example, have compared themselves to Martin Luther King and the Cherokee Trail of Tears, apparently in anticipation of charges of racism. But the racist underpinnings of militia-thought are hard to conceal. When asked if constant references to international banking conspiracies were anti-Semitic, for instance, MOM spokesman Bob Fletcher replied, "If the bulk of the banking elite are Jewish, is that anti-Semitic?"
Although initiated and chiefly led by conscious white supremacists, the militia often project themselves as concerned only about high taxes, government repression, gun rights and the Constitution. That has made it easier for them to reach the politically alienated
conservatives who make up their base. Militia recruits, in turn, provide educational opportunities for a racist far right that hopes to turn its new contacts into cadres, in part through "Bible study" sessions that initiate people in the bigotry of Christian Identity.
The dynamism of the militias -- which now have anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 members nationwide -- owes much to the movement's quasi-pluralistic character. While almost entirely white, male and Christian, the militias are not ideologically homogenous. They are
open, in theory, to anyone upset about gun control, committed to paramilitary tactics and in fear of a federal conspiracy to extinguish individual liberties. Different far right leaders, organizations and perspectives compete for audiences and adherents in the militia.
Aryan Nations types who revere Adolf Hitler must grit their teeth as American nationalists disparage the BATF and FBI as "Nazi stormtroopers." A panoply of conspiracy theories are mixed and matched, ranging from predictions that black United Nations helicopters
are about to swoop down and impose globalist rule (a theory that might carry a trace of realism were UN helicopters not white) to standard anti-Semitic pap like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
This potpourri makes the militia a lively center of energy, action and collaboration on the far right (which has been at least as prone to sectarian bickering as the revolutionary left!).
Militiamen are easy targets for jokes about dumb white guys with beer guts running around with K-Mart fatigues in the great outdoors. But the intermingling of armed paramilitary training with Christian Patriotism is an extremely volatile, dangerous development.
It's important not to underestimate the significance the militia have had in widening the periphery of the racist right. And after a while, running around in farm fields and shooting cans off posts won't seem an adequate form of action in the face of "a government conspiracy to take away all individual rights." (Indeed, according to researcher Russ Bellant, who specializes in the development of the far right, the next step conceived by some leaders is the formation of small "leaderless resistance" cells, carrying out terrorist actions in virtually autonomous fashion.)
That may be just what happened to McVeigh and the Nichols brothers. The racist, insurrectionary right is still small, but if the Oklahoma bombing proves anything, it is that far right ideology and organizations should be taken very, very seriously.
In some remote areas of the West, the far right has so shifted the balance in its favor that it is operating relatively free from constraint. In the towns of Derby and Roundup, Montana, government officials are, incredibly, declining to take into custody men who have been charged for such offenses as threatening officers, conspiring to kidnap government officials, and tax evasion. (Militia organizer Cal Greenup, for example, confronted officials in Hamilton, Montana, with a .357 magnum, saying, "There cannot be a cleansing without shedding of blood.")
Mainstream press coverage continues to portray the far right as crazy, oddball or off the wall. A new outpouring of superficial, wide-eyed reports have been trotted out on the far right's views on taxes, guns and government. Sometimes such pieces give hints of the
incendiary nature of the far right, but rarely do they spell out the long history of violence perpetrated by far right groups. Almost never do they expose the movement's white supremacist core.
The media thus have given the paramilitary right a lot of space to cast itself as it sees fit and broadcast its conspiracy theories without challenge. Such views, thought to be self-evidently nutty by sensation-seeking reporters, are perfectly plausible to a growing segment of alienated readers and viewers these days -- especially when reported without comment. Media analysts are thus often unwitting allies of the insurrectionary right, whose exhibitionism and inflamed rhetoric would go a lot less far without the aid of corporate media ratings wars.
Equally mistaken, however, is the trite, shopworn notion that far right groups are best ignored. Oklahoma City demonstrates conclusively that the far right won't be left to itself. The problem is not media coverage, but the type of attention -- specifically, the sort that frames far right activists as kooks, while it prints their opinions virtually unchallenged and fails to assess the source of their dynamic growth.
It is still too early to give a definitive judgment about what effect the wave of media attention will have on the militias. Softer types who find they've gotten into a situation deeper than what they bargained for will drop away. But a wave of fresh recruits will be attracted by the hype, the libertarian rhetoric and the militant posturing.
Infighting may emerge as various militia leaders jockey for position. Those with a white supremacist or Nazi orientation may start to come into conflict with gun owners less comfortable with explicit racism. In the meantime, however, tens of thousands of armed white men continue to drill and prepare for what they anticipate is a coming showdown with the New World Order.
ATC 57, July-August 1995