America's Least Wanted

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<b>Before September 11, the war on terrorism was a war against homegrown militants. Has America forgotten the enemy within?</b>

U.S. President George W. Bush may like to take credit for America’s war on terrorism, but history has never been Bush’s strong suit.

The United States has been battling terrorism for decades. The 80s and 90s saw the U.S. government at war with bands of terrorists who fused radical politics and apocalyptic religious beliefs, and who were American citizens.

According to author and political strategist Warren Kinsella, extremists of the 80s represented “the most powerful domestic terrorist threat the United States [had] faced in its more than 200 years of history.” And Kinsella’s not alone.

In his 1987 book, Armed and Dangerous, journalist James Coates writes of a group called “the Order,” composed of white supremacists, hard-core right-wingers and followers of the poisonous Christian Identity — a religion that espouses hatred of Jews.

"In a single year, [this terrorist organization] was to strike against society as a whole with what was arguably more bile, more venom and more sheer courage than had been previously observed in a fringe group in all of American history,” wrote Coates. The Order murdered Jewish radio talk-show host Alan Berg and committed a series of violent armed robberies before the group fell apart in 1985.

Fringe groups they may be, but homegrown militants have posed as great a threat as anyone living outside the borders of the United States. They are also a public relations nightmare.

Not only do domestic terrorists reflect less kindly on American society than the brave faces of freedom-fighters which figure prominently in Bush’s own offensive, they fail to provide the unifying benefits of a hated, foreign “other.” After all, channeling blame, fear and attention outside a country can really help bring a disparate nation together — and bolster public approval for a controversial new president too.

Nevertheless, it’s worth brushing up on some recent American history.

Like the Order, the Posse Comitatus posed a major danger during the 1980s. Founded in 1969 in Oregon, the name comes from the Latin words for “power to the county.” Members believed the county sheriff was the highest authority in the land and that they didn’t have to pay state or federal income taxes. In 1983, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) identified nearly 60,000 Posse-inspired tax protesters in the United States. That same year, Posse member Gordon Kahl shot and killed two federal marshals in North Dakota who were trying to arrest him.

In 1985, federal officials raided a compound belonging to the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord. Two years later, the Justice Department arrested over a dozen prominent neo-Nazis including Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, Klansman Louis Beam, racist activist Bob Miles, and Order members Richard Scutari, David Lane and Bruce Pierce, charging them (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) with “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the government.

Far-right terrorism grew even more bloody during the 1990s. Mark Potok, editor of a The Intelligence Report, monitors the activities of the hard right for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a U.S. hate watchdog group.

The 90s saw the advent of the “militia” or “patriot” movement. This movement shied away from open racism, preferring to pick fights against gun control, Big Government and Bill Clinton.

The “Oklahoma bomber,” Timothy McVeigh, was a former militia member. On April 19, 1995, he used a homemade bomb to destroy a government office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. It was the worst act of terrorism on American soil prior to September 11. (In the hours after the blast, the search for suspects focussed on Middle Eastern or Arab terrorists.)

While McVeigh’s actions made banner headlines, Potok says, “few Americans realize how many domestic terrorist conspiracies there were in the aftermath of Oklahoma City.”

Militia groups hatched another eight or ten major domestic terrorist conspiracies during the late 1990s. "Most people haven’t heard of them, because, by and large, they didn’t succeed,” he explains.

He cites a 1996 attempt by a Ku Klux Klan sect in Texas to blow up a natural gas processing facility. The action — averted by the FBI — could have killed up to thirty thousand people.

Unlike their neo-Nazi brethren of the 1980s, militia members enjoyed a degree of support among mainstream conservatives. Anti-government militia rhetoric was echoed by the likes of Pat Buchanan, TV evangelist Pat Robertson and reverend Jerry Falwell.

The 90s also saw the rise of terrorist acts aimed at abortion providers in Canada and the U.S. In 1992, Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s Toronto-based abortion clinic was bombed. A year later, Canadian physician, Dr. Garson Romalis, was shot and wounded by a sniper in Vancouver as he ate breakfast in his home. The situation in the United States was even more grim; between 1991 and 1997, there were over a dozen murders or attempted murders of abortion clinic staff by anti-choice activists.

While the militia movement largely fell apart in the late 90s, it would be a “grave mistake,” says Potok, to discount the threat of terrorism from domestic right-wingers.

Though “moderate” militia groups have gone into decline, the race-based radical right is on the rise across the western hemisphere. Members of hate groups such as the National Alliance in the U.S. and Front National in France, even applauded the attacks of September 11 as a blow to “Jewish power.”

One wonders what internal hate groups are up to while the world’s attention is focussed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries on “terrorist watch” lists.

“All the focus recently has been on foreign, Muslim terrorism,” says Potok. “It would behoove us to remember the massive scale of terrorism in the 1990s, from our own people.”

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