"Them: Adventures With Extremists," Jon Ronson's wry, detached look at the world's radical conspiracy peddlers, suffers from a case of bad timing. Before Sept. 11, it would have been fine to joke about Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of England's most prominent Muslim fundamentalists and possibly "the most dangerous man in Britain," according to one London newspaper. No one would have criticized Ronson for focusing more on the sheik's gaffes than on his ability to foment terrorism. Most of us would have simply laughed when Ronson recounted how the supposedly fierce warrior couldn't be coaxed into dehooking a fish that he pulled from a country stream.
But now, when federal prosecutors are about to put the so-called 20th hijacker on trial and when a British man has been accused of trying to blow up a plane with sneakers full of plastic explosives, Ronson's light, uncritical approach feels misguided. The "hip reporter visits wacky subculture" scheme may have worked for decades -- Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" have become American classics -- but these days, it's hard not to wonder whether Muslim fundamentalism and the Klu Klux Klan deserve to be painted with Ronson's gonzo-like brush.
And yet, it would be a mistake to discard Ronson's book because its style seems too casual for our times. Ronson first published "Them" in England before the terrorist attacks so he can hardly be blamed for plying the popular pre-Sept. 11 trade of ironic reportage. And despite the book's apolitical, documentary approach -- or perhaps because of it -- "Them" raises important questions about the nature of public paranoia. Who is more dangerous, the book suggests, the so-called extremists like Mohammed, who is afraid of fish, or the government agents who killed Vikki Weaver and her 14-year-old son in 1992 after a standoff at Ruby Ridge, their Idaho cabin? When anthrax letters are spooking the nation and the government reserves the right to detain thousands without explanation, who should the public fear?
Ronson aims to obliterate the "us vs. them" dichotomy that inspired the book's title. His extended first-person account is framed as a quest; he travels the planet seeking information about the Bilderberg Group, a tiny band of powerful men who allegedly run the world, according to Mohammed and just about every other extremist that the author encounters. But Ronson never rushes the process of discovery. He lingers with people along the fringe. He listens, watches, records and ultimately juxtaposes their outlandish rhetoric with their simple humanity. When he visits the Appalachian compound of Jeff Berry, Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, for example, he writes about not just the neon sign that reads "White Pride Worldwide," but also the bodyguard named Dakota who "searched me for weapons and made us all coffee." He notes that despite the hate he would seem to embody, Dakota looked "like a teenaged skateboarder who watches MTV and endorses multi-culturalism."
Visits to other extremists yield deeper forms of paradox. Ronson, a documentary filmmaker who wrote the book after producing a companion series on "The Secret Rulers of the World," focuses on his subjects' softer side. He seems to appreciate the sincerity of people like David Icke, a former pro soccer player who gave up a sportscasting career when he began to think that Queen Elizabeth, George Bush and other world leaders are actually blood-sucking 12-foot lizards bent on destroying the earth. He's willing to believe Vikki and Randy Weaver's daughter, Rachel, who survived the Ruby Ridge attack, when she argues that her family was simply a band of loners who wanted to be left to themselves, not a racist militia that aimed to topple the government.
At the very least, Ronson suggests, the Ickes and Weavers of the world are no worse than their adversaries. The gung-ho government agents who called the tiny Weaver shack a "fortress" end up looking just as radical under Ronson's gaze as the family they attacked. The Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, earns lows marks as well. The book's interviews with Gail Gans, the ADL's chief researcher, make the organization seem overzealous, if not deluded. Ronson, who identifies himself as a Jew, never directly condemns the ADL, but with pointed rhetorical questions he casts doubt on the group's claim that "one out of eight Americans has hard-core Anti-Semitic feelings." He also questions the ADL's focus on "code" words. Having spent time with several people who the organization labels as anti-Semitic -- and having witnessed little if any anti-Semitism -- he finds it hard to believe that every mention of the "New World Order," "international bankers," "the New Yorkers" and "cosmopolitans" is actually an attempt to mask hate for the Jews.
But Ronson, however much he leans toward anti-establishment beliefs, never falls completely into the conspiracy-obsessed camp. He toys with the belief in an all-powerful Them; he panics when someone seems to follow him after he visits the hotel where the Bilderbergers are meeting. But when Big Jim Tucker, publisher of The Spotlight, a right-wing newsletter, fabricates a quote and attributes it to Ronson in an effort to demonize the group, Ronson begins to draw the line between fact and delusional fiction. After landing an interview with a member of the group and after sneaking into one of their private ceremonies, he distances himself even further from the extremist view of their activities. He becomes convinced that the Bilderberg Group is nothing more than a loosely organized think tank that annually calls together some of the world's most influential business and political leaders. Critics are correct to point out that these men (and a few women) are powerful, but do they actually start wars and choose presidents, as some believe? No way, Ronson declares when he gets in an argument with a handful of Bilderberg haters: The markets rule the world, not a band of leaders, and those who think otherwise are in danger of becoming as ridiculous and dangerous as the American government they love to hate.
"You're doing to them exactly what they did to Randy Weaver and David Koresh," Ronson tells the anti-Bilderbergers. "You're putting two and two together and making five in exactly the same way."
With this tongue-lashing, Ronson's development from reporter to almost-believer to universal skeptic becomes complete. There are a few literary snags along the way. Some of Ronson's paranoia feels staged for dramatic effect, and his indirect style -- even when one ignores today's political mood -- often feels inappropriate. The book could have used more probing analysis, more adversarial questions for the right-wing extremists (not just for the ADL). But Ronson's light romp through a world of paranoid but relatively harmless clowns is not without value. By reminding readers that the gap between "us" and "them" is far more slender than some would like to believe, Ronson's effort may end up becoming a useful antidote to today's frightened times.