There are similarities between absolute power and absolute faith: a demand for absolute obedience, a readiness to attempt the impossible, a bias for simple solutions to cut the knot rather than unravel it, the viewing of compromise as surrender. Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence, absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
Eric Hoffer, The New York Times Magazine, April 25, 1971
In 1972, in the midst of the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign against targets symbolic of the American Empire, a young man formed a paramilitary group operating in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona.
While the radical underground of the left waged war on “Fascist Amerikkka,” Robert J. Mathews and his Sons of Liberty saw themselves as an underground army prepared to take on the creeping menace of Communism.
Twelve years later, as the leader of The Order, Mathews, too, would declare war — against the “Zionist Occupation Government” (ZOG) of the United States.
Though they espoused opposing faiths, the radical underground movements of the Marxist Left and the racist and anti-Semitic Right shared many characteristics. Strategically, both based their actions on faith in the foco theory of revolution: That a tiny guerrilla force could, through violent acts, ignite a grassroots revolution and topple the U.S. government.
They also shared a “readiness to attempt the impossible, a bias for simple solutions to cut the knot rather than unravel it, the viewing of compromise as surrender.” Both issued “communiqués” couched in fervid, apocalyptic rhetoric, and they shared the arrogant moral vacuity that asserts that “there are no innocents” among those perceived as class or racial enemies.
And both found justification in the violent acts of the U.S. government.
Right-wing radicalism in America did not start with Robert J. Mathews, but he was an exemplar of its theory and practice, endeavoring through action to bring to life the fantasies of the movement’s thought-leaders and propagandists. And in his fiery death during a shootout with the agents of “ZOG,” he provided the movement with a martyr.
His radicalization got off to an early start. At age 11, growing up in Arizona, he became a member of the anti-Communist John Birch Society. His path of self-radicalization moved swiftly through anti-communism and tax resistance to neo-Nazism and Christian Identity and white separatism.
After getting crosswise with the IRS through his tax resistance (or evasion), Mathews left Arizona in 1977, and found a home at Metaline Falls, Washington, not far from the Canadian border. The “Nordic” landscape of misty forest and mountain inspired him, the remoteness from a modern America whose culture he rejected soothed him, and the nearly 100 percent white population made the place feel like home.
For a time, it appeared that Mathews was content working in a mine and then a cement plant, the only two significant employers in the area, and working his land in pioneer fashion.
But Mathews was fatally attracted to radicalism, and his quiescence could not last. In 1980, he joined the National Alliance, a white-supremacist group founded by William L. Pierce, a former physics professor and sometime American Nazi. And two years after that, he began attending services at Church of Jesus Christ Christian at the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. There, Pastor Richard Butler preached Christian Identity, a theology that exalted the Anglo-Saxon as the true people of the Covenant and literally demonized the Jews as children of Satan.
By the time he was 30, in 1983, Mathews was willing to rob, kill and die for the cause of a White American Bastion — a separate homeland in the interior Pacific Northwest for the white race.
Passionate and charismatic, Mathews was able to convince a small cadre of other men to join him in paramilitary guerrilla warfare. He named his outfit The Order.
The name The Order came from a book that became both an inspiration and a kind of handbook for the radical right: The Turner Diaries. The novel, written by Pierce, depicts an underground paramilitary outfit called The Order taking on a federal government run by Jews and utilizing black police to disarm white Americans. By blowing up the FBI headquarters with a fertilizer bomb (more on that later) The Order ignites a war that results in their takeover of the world and the elimination of racial enemies.
Pierce fully understood that his protege was seeking to bring his apocalyptic vision to life:
“(The Order) set its sights on a full-scale armed revolution, ending with the purification of the U.S. population and the institution of a race-based authoritarian government.”
Mathews and several “kinsmen” brought The Order (aka Bruder Schweigen, The Silent Brotherhood) into being in September 1983. Using The Turner Diaries as a template, they plotted to use counterfeiting and armed robbery to fund the white resistance movement and ignite a revolution to establish the White American Bastion.
They got off to an inauspicious start. Their first operation, the robbery of a porn shop in Spokane, Washington, netted $369, and shortly thereafter, Order member Bruce Carroll Pierce was caught passing counterfeit $50 bills. The Order could have fallen right there, but Mathews put it on his back and trudged ahead. He singlehandedly robbed a Washington bank, netting $26,000 (though some was ruined by an exploding dye pack) —enough to bail Pierce out of jail and to jump-start an urban guerrilla warfare campaign.
With Mathews inspiration and the windfall from his action, The Order’s actions swiftly became more ambitious, more tactically proficient, and more lucrative. They hit armored cars, and bombed a synagogue with a small device that did little damage but sent a message.
The Order’s first killing was an internal security operation. An Aryan Nations member named Walter West, 42, had been getting drunk in Idaho bars and talking up The Order’s exploits. On Mathews orders, four kinsmen lured West into the woods and Randy Duey hit him in the head with a hammer. That failed to kill him, so they shot him in the face with a rifle.
The Order would kill again on June 18, 1984. This time, it was an assassination of a perceived race enemy — a Colorado talk radio host named Alan Berg, who delighted in baiting and needling white supremacists from his spot at KOA Radio 850 on the AM dial. Berg was a Jew, and The Order signed his death warrant. A hit team comprised of Mathews, virulent racist David Lane, Pierce and a new recruit named Richard Scutari swooped in on Berg as he pulled his Volkswagen Beetle into the driveway of his home. Pierce was the triggerman, and he opened up on Berg with a MAC-10 submachinegun, riddling him with .45 caliber bullets. Berg was dead when he hit the ground and the hit team made their getaway.
The tempo of operations was fast. On July 19, The Order hit a Brink’s armored car on a steep grade on California’s Highway 101. They made off with $3.6 million. But The Order’s massive score planted the seeds of their downfall. For Robert J. Mathews had dropped a traceable pistol in the armored car as he was passing out the bags of loot. And now the FBI was on to The Order.
Another seed of destruction had been planted just a couple of weeks before. The Order had hooked up with a counterfeiter in Pennsylvania named Tom Martinez. Mathews couldn’t quite get him fully recruited, but he agreed to pass counterfeit bills for the underground group. He was promptly popped — and just as promptly, he decided to cooperate with the Feds.
A 40-agent FBI investigative task force descending on The Order’s Washington/Idaho backwoods haunts flushed the guerrillas out, and they went on the run. Mathews and a cohort moved from motel to safehouse to motel between Mt. Hood and Portland, Oregon, while Bruce Pierce led another cadre in a nomadic run across the Southwest in campers and RVs.
Mathews, unaware that Martinez was turned, set up a meet with the counterfeiter, and Martinez painted the target for the FBI at the Capri Motel in Portland, Oregon. Mathews made the agents and fled on foot, shooting one agent in the thigh. He was wounded in the hand. He and his cadre went to ground on Whidbey Island in Washington, as Mathews issued a declaration of war:
“All about us the land is dying. Our cities swarm with dusky hordes. The water is rancid and the air is rank. Our farms are being seized by usurious leeches and our people are being forced off the land. The capitalists and communists pick gleefully at our bones while the vile, hook-nosed masters of usury orchestrate our destruction.
“We hereby declare ourselves a free and sovereign people. We claim a territorial imperative that will consist of the entire North American continent north of Mexico. As soldiers of the Aryan Resistance Movement (ARM) we will conduct ourselves in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
“We now close this Declaration with an open letter to congress and our signatures confirming our intent to do battle… we declare ourselves to be in a full and unrelenting state of war with those forces seeking and consciously promoting the destruction of our Faith and our Race. Therefore, for Blood, Soil and Honor, and for the future of our children, we commit ourselves to battle. Amen.’
The Order, Brüder Schweigen
Mathews and his cadre, including the killer Randy Duey, were ensconced in safehouses on Whidbey Island, Washington, when a 150-man federal force moved in and surrounded them on December 7, 1984. Four members of The Order, lacking the level of commitment of their leader (or, for that matter, the cojones of the women of the SLA) surrendered meekly. Mathews shot it out.
A 36-hour siege of his cabin ended when the FBI fired “illumination rounds” into the first floor of the cabin, setting the structure ablaze. Like General-Field Marshal Cinque in L.A., Bob Mathews’ charred corpse was found with a gas mask — and a pistol in his hand.
The right-wing radical underground had a martyr.
The fiery, defiant death of Robert J. Mathews inspired fellow travelers on the extreme racist Right, but it was two badly botched and bloody operations of the federal government they so despised that galvanized the Right to lash out in an explosive and horrific act of “revolutionary” retribution.
The debacles at Ruby Ridge Idaho and at a cult compound in Waco, Texas in 1992 and 1993 served to stoke the worst fears of an already paranoid extreme right — and created in the most radical a ready-made justification for retributive violence. The thirst for payback echoes the militant left’s vow to “bring the war home” in retribution for U.S. state-sanctioned violence in Vietnam. And once again, the lens of the radical militant admits of no innocents.
Timothy McVeigh, a disillusioned Army veteran of the Gulf War took it upon himself to avenge the actions of a federal government he was convinced had gone rogue. It is not certain just how much help and sympathy he got from others on the radical Right, but it seems clear that he got more moral and material support than what was turned up in a somewhat hasty investigation. Regardless, McVeigh was the prime mover in an act he regarded as an act of war — the worst terrorist attack on American soil prior to the al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001.
The bomber of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had hardened his heart.
“I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them… What the U.S. government did at Waco and Ruby Ridge was dirty. I gave dirty back to them at Oklahoma City.”
Ruby Ridge was a cock-up from beginning to end.
Randy Weaver and his family left their home in Iowa and moved to a remote hilltop at Naples, Idaho, to retreat from a world they saw as corrupt and sliding toward the end times. The Weaver’s subscribed to an intensely apocalyptic vision of Christianity. They were neighbors of Aryan Nations and they had views that, as reporter Jess Walter put it, “bumped up against Christian Identity and the kind of stuff people believed at Hayden Lake, but didn’t quite match.” There’s no indication that Randy was interested in following in the footsteps of Robert J. Mathews and The Order; he planned to stay on his mountain and wait out the tribulations.
But he needed money, and when someone offered to pay him to saw the barrels off of a couple of shotguns, he did it. The man was an informer, and Randy Weaver became a target. The Feds wanted to flip him and use him to roll more significant players. Weaver wasn’t going to do that.
A series of misjudgments followed — on Weaver’s part and on the part of the government. The government, especially the FBI, thought they were dealing with another Bob Mathews and they promulgated unprecedented rules of engagement that allowed shooting any armed subject on sight.
Weaver and his family read the federal encirclement and the enormous force of a leviathan government brought to bear against them as confirmation of their apocalyptic vision.
Misjudgments and miscalculations, and mistakes compounding mistakes, led to a violent confrontation and a siege on the mountaintop that ultimately left a Deputy U.S. Marshal dead, along with Weaver’s 14-year-old son. Vicki Weaver was fatally shot through the face by an FBI sniper while she was holding her infant. It seems to have been a tactical error on the part of the sniper, not an act of malice — but it was very, very bad.
The incident was a disaster — one that should never have occurred. And it didn’t take much to spin a narrative of a federal government out of control — because that’s exactly what it looked like.
When Ruby Ridge was followed by a botched effort to end the siege at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco less than a year later — one that ended in a fire (set on the orders of cult leader David Koresh) that killed 80 people, including many children, the militant right was convinced that the government had declared war on the people.
Timothy McVeigh determined that he would do something about it.
At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, McVeigh detonated a 7,000-pound fertilizer bomb in the cargo cab of a Ryder truck parked in front of the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The bomb ripped the guts out of the building in a giant crescent, sending hundreds of people plunging downward in an avalanche of crumbling concrete and broken glass. The explosion and collapse killed 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare center located just above where the truck was parked.
“If I had known there was an entire day-care center, it might have given me pause to switch targets. That’s a large amount of collateral damage.”
It wasn’t that McVeigh felt remorse at the deaths of so many children. He simply recognized that the optics didn’t look so good for his cause.
Timothy McVeigh was not a psychopath. He was a self-radicalized terrorist, and he believed he was doing the hard, dirty, but necessary thing for a cause. Like Mathews, he found inspiration in The Turner Diaries, and the Murrah bombing was designed to mimic the destruction of the FBI headquarters in the novel. And, like Mathews, McVeigh employed symbolism in his actions. The date of his attack was 220 years to the day after the “shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington & Concord, and two years to the day after the fiery denouement at the Branch Davidian Siege in Waco.
When McVeigh was arrested — on a weapons charge after a routine traffic stop — he was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the front, with the legend “Sic Semper Tyrannus,” the word John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln in he head. On the back was Thomas Jefferson’s statement that:
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
And, in Timothy McVeigh’s morally insane universe, the blood of babies.
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
— T.E. Lawrence
Spending a great deal of time in the company of violent extremists as I have for the past few weeks researching these essays is unsettling. It is fascinating to see a pattern of behavior where, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical,” play out repeatedly and across the ideological spectrum.
The same foco theory animated the terrorists of left and right — the conviction that through violent acts their tiny cadre could spark a revolution — or a race war —overthrow a corrupt U.S. government and, somehow, cleanse a dirty world to usher in… what? Cuban style “Democratic Centralism”? The “White American Bastion”? The mechanism for actually building a future is never really defined — because the future isn’t really the point. I don’t argue that the guerrillas of the radical underground were cynical, that they didn’t really believe in the efficacy of their own theory of revolution. But I do believe that they convinced themselves that they could spark revolution simply in order to justify trying. The means didn’t justify the ends; the means — what Hitchens called “ecstatic action” — WERE the ends.
It’s a hallucination, acting out a dream with open eyes.
There’s something seductively romantic about the intensity of the radical, the level of commitment, the outlaw mystique. It can be glamorous — what was once called radical chic. There is something enticing about that “bias toward simple solutions to cut the knot rather than unravel it.”
But all of it is, of course, a dead end — and when hundreds of innocents die in the enactment of a hallucinatory dream, the mystique is stripped away and only a grinning skull remains.
So what are we to do when we seek ardently after profound change, yet the option for revolution is foreclosed to us by an understanding of history, moral scruples (and plain common sense)? We must find a way to unravel the knot instead of indulging ourselves in the ecstatic action of trying to cut it. That is the project upon which we are embarked at RIR. And we’re finding sign along the trail, like this from Patrick J. Deneen:
“…the better course lies not in any political revolution, but in the patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order. As the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel wrote in ‘The Power of the Powerless’: A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.’”