The American Taliban

Violent hate groups continue to ride a rising tide of fear and bigotry

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So race was a key issue in motivating people to join right-wing groups and movements, but what about the economy? Most people assume that recruiting for groups like the KKK and the Militias goes best during an economic crisis. Isn't this also a driving factor?

Economic issues and themes have always played a significant role in right-wing propaganda and recruitment, but people still wrongly overestimate its influence. After all, when the KKK grew to nearly four million members in the 1920s, it was a period of tremendous economic growth. And during the Great Depression that followed, many Americans turned not to right-wing social movements but in the opposite direction, joining labor unions and voting for Roosevelt. Yes, pro-Hitler demagogues got a fair amount of mileage out of the Depression, but overall the country shifted to the left. In the 1950s and '60s, when segregationists mounted their huge campaign of "Massive Resistance" to integration, the economy was booming. And when the militia movement got going in the early 1990s that also was a period of economic growth. What really drove the militias was passage of federal gun control legislation in 1993 and 1994, not fears about the economy. Of course, during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when interest rates hit double digits and farmers were filing bankruptcy in droves, the radical right had an easier time selling their conspiracy theories about "Jewish bankers." Basically, it is an oversimplification to say that hard times lead to scapegoating and bigotry.

With everything you have said about the firepower and anti-government zeal of the radical right, the law enforcement community ought to take these groups more seriously. Yet you've written critically about the FBI and the Justice Department in this regard. Is enough attention being paid to the paramilitary right?

The Oklahoma City bombing was a huge wake-up call to the law enforcement community and the American public. But there were incidents long before 1995, which also prompted increased scrutiny by the Feds. There were the killings, in 1983, of two U.S. Marshals in North Dakota by Gordon Kahl, a tax-protesting farmer and member of the Posse Comitatus. The Order also got a lot of attention when it nabbed more than $3 million from an armored car in California the following year. But one of the basic problems has been that the FBI and the Justice Department have not created substantial incentives for those agents who do make a point of specializing in white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups; it isn't really seen as a path to career advancement.

Before the post-Oklahoma City crackdown, there had not been a serious effort to bust illegal right-wing activity since the Feds locked up two-dozen members of the Order in 1985 and then went after the political leaders of the movement with a raft of sedition indictments in 1987 — and failed. And there really has never been a concerted effort to infiltrate and disrupt the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement. That has just been deemed too politically sensitive.

Some Justice Department officials like to complain that their hands have been tied because of the restrictive rules issued by Congress in the wake of all the civil liberties abuses of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that came to light in the mid-1970s. But I don't really buy that argument. There is plenty of illegal activity on the radical right and ample probable cause to initiate legitimate criminal investigations within the confines of the law. Of course, in the post-9-11 era, a lot of those restrictions have been severely weakened, so theoretically we shouldn't be hearing those excuses.

What was the reaction of these groups to 9-11?

A number of neo-Nazi groups were tremendously animated: They praised the terrorists of Al Qaeda, even though they denounced them in racist terms because they were Arabs. "We may not want them marrying our daughters. But anyone who is willing to fly a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me," said one of the leaders of the National Alliance. "My only concern is that we Aryans didn't do this and that the rag-heads are ahead of us on the Lone Wolf point scale," said another.

These folks call themselves "patriots" and defenders of the constitution, but some of them are just as theologically committed to murder as the most violent fanatics of radical Islam. Based on what we've seen post 9-11, we cannot afford to be concerned about terrorism as simply a "foreign" phenomenon. From the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan, domestic hate groups have been all too eager to perpetrate terrorism against their fellow Americans.

Given all that you've said, what is the state of the far-right movement today?

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