One, two, many Tim McVeighs

He was a public relations disaster for the far right, but many people believe what he believed and are prepared to act just as violently.

Published June 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

timothy McVeigh, according to his commander in the Gulf War, was a "soldier's soldier." Other ex-Army buddies testifying for the defense in the sentencing phase of his trial for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building called him "professional" and "the best gunner in the platoon." "He took everything serious," said one of his buddies, Dave Dilly.

McVeigh took Waco especially seriously, his attorneys have argued. It was that single event, they told jurors, that propelled him into an anti-government rage. Before that, he was an average American young man who believed in God, the flag and the Constitution. Except that as early as 1990, cross-examination revealed, McVeigh was reading "The Turner Diaries," a repellently racist novel that calls for the elimination of Jews and blacks, not to mention blowing up federal institutions.

Despite being disowned by militias and other far-right groups, McVeigh is part of a burgeoning and deadly social movement that could strike again, according to Frederick Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press). The book is a survey of far-right activity, including what Clarkson calls the "theology of vigilantism" being directed against abortion clinics and against gays.

Salon talked with Clarkson by phone from his home in Maine about where McVeigh fits in the late 20th century American extreme right.

There are a lot of people on the right who got upset about Waco, including members of Congress. Where does McVeigh fit on that spectrum?

He would be on the farthest right. He's a Nazi.

The defense is painting a portrait of McVeigh as a superb soldier and all-around affable guy.

There were plenty of Nazis in Germany who were kind to children, loved by their mothers and respected by their senior officers. They were also ruthless, cold-blooded killers.

The militias seem to want nothing to do with McVeigh. If he is on the farthest right, are there others out there with him?

McVeigh was a public relations disaster for the militia movement. But he was neither alone nor a nut. There are plenty of people -- and plenty who are organizing collectively underground -- who are quite prepared to do similar things as McVeigh did and hope to have the opportunity to do so.

He was not a nut even though he killed 168 people?

No one has said that there is something clinically wrong with him. And we know he didn't act alone. McVeigh was an ideologically committed person working in concert with others for political objectives. He thought that his act would spark a revolution. Instead it backfired against the people who share the same sort of ideas about the federal government.

Are you suggesting that McVeigh's circle went beyond Terry Nichols and the Fortiers?

It's possible. McVeigh had ties to some shadowy figures at Elohim City, which is a hub for a lot of neo-Nazi activity of a specifically terrorist and criminal nature. There was the Aryan Republican Army, which carried out a series of bank robberies in Ohio. Some of the people who are known to have consorted with McVeigh and his friends were part of that group and resided at Elohim City. One in particular was an expatriate German intelligence officer named Andreas Strassmeir, who is believed by many to have been the recipient of a call from McVeigh. Without being questioned by the U.S. authorities, he was able to leave the country. There are many facts that don't quite add up. The Strassmeir connection is one of them.

You think that McVeigh, as his lawyers have argued, was a pawn of a larger conspiracy?

Are there links, are their associations that suggest conspiracy? Yes. Are there people who could have known and supported the bombing but about whom there wasn't enough information to indict? Sure. Is there a broader network of political and paramilitary contacts? Absolutely. Are they indictable in this case? Probably not.

If McVeigh receives the death penalty, will he become another martyr on the far right?

The fact is, he's already a martyr. In the view of the far right factions he epitomizes, he's a prisoner of war. Sure his execution might underscore and dramatize that in a very large way -- probably less of the physical act of execution itself, but more because of the syrupy drama that would be played out in the media.

There's disagreement among watchdog groups about the prominence of militias. The Anti-Defamation League says they are on the decline, while Klanwatch (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center) says they are on the rise.

I think people get preoccupied with numbers. I don't know of any good, accurate count by any group. The ADL and Klanwatch are involved in honest, educated guesswork, which is all anyone can do. I think the question should be, what is the significance of these groups? And the only thing we can say for sure is that the militia movement is growing in significance. Never before in American history have there been so many well-armed anti-government organizations, both public and underground, with the stated intent of challenging the federal government through armed resistance.

It's still difficult for most people to understand why you would bomb a federal building, kill children or terrorize government officials to make your case.

If you're involved in the psychology of warfare, terrorist bombings are the norm, not the exception. Being cold-blooded and ruthless is the norm in warfare, no matter what your political ideology is. In the case of Timothy McVeigh, it was partly revenge for Waco. But it was broader than that too. He saw himself as part of a revolutionary struggle with the government of the United States. The buzzword always is, across a wide spectrum of the far right, "What are we going to do when they come to get our guns." For many on the far right, the ATF moving in on the Branch Davidians was seen as the first instance in a major new wave of government repression, aimed at disarming citizens.

Law enforcement officials are now suggesting that the bombing of an abortion clinic and the attack on a gay nightclub in Atlanta may be the work of an organized group.

That's just part of the damage being done by these groups -- from abortion clinic violence and the assassination of doctors to a huge number of militia-related crimes going on before and since Oklahoma City. We need to take these people seriously. If you're a reporter and you're writing about the far right, and you haven't read "The Turner Diaries" by William L. Pierce or "The New World Order" by Pat Robertson, then you're not doing your job.

Books that neighbors, colleagues or family members might be reading. Both of those books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

That's part of why it's all so chilling. They live in their suburban neighborhoods and have their 50-gallon drums of automatic weapons stored out back. That's not as uncommon as you might think. These are people who otherwise lead very normal lives. But you get at a very important point, and that is that people tend to dismiss people in the militia movement, or on the far right, as somehow insane. That's a bad habit. And it's intellectually lazy and arrogant. Who are they to make such a diagnosis and on what basis? If you fail to take serious people seriously, you are at a political disadvantage.

Do you think there will be another Oklahoma City bombing-type event?

Are there people out there prepared to take these kinds of things on? Yes. Will there be cool, calculated killing that goes on? Yes, absolutely. Again, if you read their books and articles, it's all there.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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