Confederacy of Dunces

The members of violence-prone right-wing groups like the just-busted "Viper Militia" won't win any I.Q. contests.

Published July 2, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

A 13th person was arrested Tuesday in the alleged plot by the "Viper Militia" to blow up federal and state buildings in Arizona.
Authorities have also seized 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate -- the same material used in Oklahoma City -- and other bomb-making equipment. The arrests came after a two-year undercover investigation which began after a hunter came upon a group of camouflaged men in Arizona's Tonto National Forest.

Experts on the militia movement say the Viper Militia is another example of the "leaderless resistance" groups favored by violent right-wingers. They also point to a 68-page "Operation Plan American Viper" which has been circulating in extreme right-wing circles, and calls for selecting targets for violent attacks. Justice Department officials said there was no evidence the Viper Militia was connected to the Oklahoma City bombing, but said the group had the "wherewithal to create mayhem."

We talked with James Jarrett, a former Arizona law enforcement officer who infiltrated an extreme right-wing Arizona group in the 1980s. He is now an adjunct professor in the School of Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and an expert on extreme right-wing groups.

You've been investigating groups like the Viper Militia for many years. What do we know about this group?

One of them was a student at my weapons academy in Phoenix several years ago. I'd rather not identify him, the way things are right now. But even then he had some pretty right-wing ideologies -- the black helicopter kind of thing. As I recall, he would talk about conspiracy theories behind gun control laws, and how the world was being run financially by this secret conspiracy composed of Jews. That sort of thing.

Did that worry you at the time? Did you think, jeez, maybe I ought to turn this guy in?

For what? I get a bunch of those. Most of them are harmless. They're not the brightest folks in the world, and it doesn't mean they are going to follow through on anything.

But some do, like your student.

I think a lot of it is they didn't originally intend to do any of this stuff, but they just get caught up in it. It's like two guys out driving around in a pick-up truck one night, and one says, "You ever thought about robbing a liquor store?" And there's a gun in the box, and nobody wants to be the first to back down, and pretty soon one of them takes the gun out of the box and goes in and sticks it in somebody's face. It kind of takes on a life of its own, and these people are too stupid to be in control of their own destiny, so they get swept along.

In your experience, what kind of people do get swept up in movements like the Vipers?

Blue collar, minimum wage, white males, 20-ish to 50-ish. They have a unique blend of fundamentalist Christianity and what we might call Founding Father Jeffersonian republicanism. And as I said, they're not the brightest people in the world.

You infiltrated the Arizona Patriots in the mid-'80s. Any links between them and the Viper Militia?

These people (the Arizona Patriots) were never really an organization. They were absolutely harmless, except for a couple of pathologically deranged individuals. They were just frustrated Americans acting out a sort of biblical view of Armageddon mixed in with their politics. The ideology and rhetoric of the Vipers is similar.
They all get involved in this "admiralty law" -- where they challenge the whole concept of American governmental institutions like the Federal Reserve. They are totally committed to the notion of "negative liberty" -- like our Bill of Rights. The only way to protect that is to restrict the intrusion of the state upon the individual. They see that as Jeffersonian. Many of them view Lincoln as the consummate traitor because he made the first move towards "positive liberty" --which of course FDR later epitomized -- in which people have a right to things, such as opportunity, education, free medical care, whatever it may be; to these people on the right, it's just anathema.

To the point of blowing up buildings? They must at some level
be conscious that people will die, and they won't be just agents of the "conspiracy."

Those who are willing to do something like, in my experience, have never been in combat --

What about Timothy McVeigh?

He never served in combat. To people like McVeigh, it is almost a story book. They've never heard a shot fired in anger. They've never seen bodies crumple. There's a dissociation, a romanticized perception of what they are involved in. And they get caught up in such a righteous fervor that they begin to set aside normal moral inhibitions. They kind of remind you of Santayana's definition of a zealot -- as someone who loses sight of their goals and therefore redoubles their efforts.

With the Vipers, that fervor lasted at least two years, and it might have been a lot longer if they hadn't been caught.

Sure. The testosterone keeps running. But it surprises me that they could be this incredibly stupid. Even for these not very bright people, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, you might think twice before gathering large amounts of ammonium nitrate. And it always amazes me that they are so unsophisticated as to not know the difference between, say, targeting an individual FBI agent -- which at least they could try to couch as a "surgical strike" against an "agent of the state" -- and taking out a bunch of innocent people in a building that has a day care center.

The bust is bound to raise speculation about possible links with the Oklahoma City bombing -- Timothy McVeigh spent time in Arizona -- and whether the militia movement is larger than we thought.

So far there's absolutely no evidence of links between McVeigh and Arizona other than casual association. And 12 people in an Arizona militia is hardly grounds for hysteria. What you might see as a result of this is the further expansion of federal and state law enforcement investigative powers -- which would lead to a further erosion of individual and civil liberties. It's just so stunning that these groups
can't figure this out -- that they actually create the circumstances they happen to be against.

Quote of the day

What do you really think, Gore?

"I'd never work for you. You distorted Kennedy, you distorted Nixon, and you lack the one quality a director needs most -- talent."

-- Gore Vidal to Oliver Stone, after the latter asked for the writer's input on a movie the director is preparing on Alexander the Great. (From Liz Smith's syndicated gossip column).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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