Jon Ronson

The author of "Them: Adventures With Extremists" discusses his time with Osama's London cohort, close calls with neo-Nazis and the undeniable humanity of the world's would-be monsters.

Published March 14, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

A few years ago, when British journalist Jon Ronson -- who is Jewish -- decided to spend a year trailing Islamic fundamentalist Omar Bakri (aka "Osama bin Laden's man in London"), he had no idea how tragically relevant his work would be. Ronson's profile of Bakri, originally published in the Guardian, spawned a book -- "Them: Adventures With Extremists" -- which hit U.S. bookstores last month amid a flurry of public outrage and controversy as well as a crop of rave reviews. Some readers and interviewers have questioned the ethics of the book, wondering how Ronson could present Bakri -- who has been accused of radicalizing shoe-bomber Richard Reid and who publicly expressed "delight" at the attacks of Sept. 11 -- as a lovable goof.

But Bakri is only the start. Ronson introduces us to Thom Robb, a KKK Grand Wizard engaged in an absurd attempt to make the Klan more mainstream (he wants his members to stop wearing their scary white robes and using the N-word); David Icke, the BBC sports commentator (and former football star), who wrecked his career after declaring himself the son of God on prime-time television and publicly insisting that the rulers of the world are actually giant lizards; Rachel Weaver, gun-toting daughter of Randy Weaver; and Big Jim Tucker, senior reporter for the Spotlight, our nation's largest white supremacist newspaper. These wackos -- whom Ronson doesn't view in as dangerous a light as one might expect -- are linked in their obsession with the Bilderberg Group, a semisecret organization that includes most of the world's financial and political leaders.

A nebbishy, Woody Allen-like fellow, Ronson could not be further from the stereotype of the hard-boiled investigative journalist. On a recent trip to New York, he met with Salon in the lobby of the Tribeca Grand hotel to discuss how and why he tried to see the world through the eyes of Klansmen, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and suspected terrorists.

"Them" was released in Britain a year ago and was an immediate bestseller. Nine months after the British release -- and six months before the U.S. release -- a bunch of guys who are quite possibly friends with one of your subjects, Omar Bakri, flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Was there any talk of not releasing the book, after Sept. 11?

Simon & Schuster never said, "Let's not publish it." But I expected them to. I was really surprised. I just left it in their hands. I said to them, "Whatever you want to do is fine by me."

How is the book being received here in America? I know some reviewers have questioned the ethics of the book -- have wondered how you could have spent all this time with Bakri and not, I don't know, done something to sabotage his plans.

Well, it's funny. I'm getting reviews in Canadian papers and they're not mentioning Sept. 11 at all. Some of the reviews here in America have been a little ... well ... funny. It definitely hits closer to home for Americans. Especially here in New York.

This morning I was on this Fox television show and the audience was shouting things like, "Why didn't you just get a gun and shoot the guy? Why didn't you just do that? Why were you such a coward? How are you going to help us destroy the axis of evil?"

And yesterday, I was on "Fresh Air" and Terry Gross said, basically, "You portrayed these people as ludicrous, harmless buffoons but you were wrong, weren't you?"

Is she right?

My view is that the book is accurate. The way I portrayed the people is accurate. Because they're human beings and we have a kind of wonderful capacity to be absurd and ridiculous. It would be easy to portray them as one-dimensional demons, but I wanted to do the opposite. Just because they're buffoons it doesn't mean they can't fly planes into the World Trade Center. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Right, but there were a few times when you were in a position to do something -- and you didn't. At the end of your year with Omar Bakri, for example, he asks you to watch the money he's been collecting throughout the year -- money for Hamas that, as you say, "will go to kill Jews in Israel" -- and you think about taking the money.

Well, that was obviously a really difficult thing. When I was writing the chapter, I thought, This is an uncomfortable truth about what happens with this kind of journalism -- when a journalist gets too close to his subject. It was a moment about journalism more than anything else. But now, after Sept. 11, I can't help think that we're in the kind of climate where you'd actually want me to take the money. If I had taken the money I probably would be selling more books here in America.

But not in Britain?

No, people back home don't realize why there is this kind of need for heroes in America at the moment. People in Britain don't really understand what's going on here. They don't understand why Camp X-ray exists. There's a massive rift of understanding right now between Britain and America. And it's only when you're here, you think you understand why America is the way it is right now.

Your book is incredibly timely. How did you become interested in Bakri and the other extremists?

At first, I did stories on people who were maybe just eccentric. Omar was a natural progression from that. Here was somebody living among us [in London] who was trying to overthrow our way of life. It was inevitable that he was going to use our system to do it. I thought that was an interesting paradox. It wasn't the fact that he was an Islamic fundamentalist. It was that he was trying to destroy us from within.

It sounds like the events of Sept. 11 have made you rethink your experiences with the extremists. Have they made you view your subjects differently? Did you have an inkling that something like the attacks was going to happen?

I did feel like they were telling me that something like that was going to happen. Not specifically -- not that planes were going to be flown into the World Trade Center or anything like that -- but in the general sense. You know, it's a paranoid book. For me, it's kind of all summed up in that David Icke chapter -- about the lizards -- because that whole episode gives you the sense that there really is a kind of cold war. There's a sort of escalating paranoia on both sides -- the extremist side and the secular liberal side (our side) -- and that it was going to blow.

Of course, I didn't recognize any of this at the time. I wasn't in any way a kind of soothsayer or not surprised when Sept. 11 happened. I was absolutely shocked. But in retrospect it does feel a bit like the book reflects a burgeoning pressure, a kind of pressure cooker situation, which comes to a head in the David Icke chapter -- which is great since it's such a kind of burlesque, absurdist chapter but at the same time that is what it's about: The extremists are getting crazier; so are our responses toward them; how is this all going to end?

In that chapter, you profile not just David Icke, but also his followers as well as a Vancouver anti-racist coalition, which believes that when Icke talks about lizards, he's really talking about Jews. You regard the anti-racists with intense skepticism, but in the end, it turns out that they may be right. You overhear one of Icke's followers refer to the anti-racists as "fat Jews." So, is Icke a racist or does he really believe that lizards rule the earth?

Well, I was conscious of the fact that I was critically chronicling both sides and I really wanted to give the anti-racists the last word. I didn't want people to think that just because the anti-racists came off as kind of silly, that they were wrong. So I thought it was important to put that line in at the end. Even if people on the liberal side are getting crazier -- and the Anti-Defamation League does sometimes get it wrong -- don't forget that people like David Icke and his followers do sometimes use code words. That's why I put that line in.

But is he a racist? I used to think he was too, you know, on the planet Mars to be a racist racist. But now I don't know. He's like a sponge. He accepts. You can say anything to David Icke and he will accept it and put it into his ideology. I tried it out once. Icke kept saying that Ted Heath, who was once the prime minister of Britain, was a lizard. I said to Icke, "Did you realize that an anagram of Ted Heath is 'the death'?" And he used it. It became part of his spiel.

Yeah, but in the end his followers take what they want from his philosophy. Maybe it doesn't matter what's going on in David Icke's mind. It's how other people take him. If people want to take "lizard" as a code word for Jew, it's dangerous. If people think he's just talking about lizards, then it's not dangerous.

Where does he get that whole lizard thing from anyway? Did he make it up?

I think he made it up. Though there's that movie, "V," which is all about how the secret rulers of the world are lizards. You see, David would say that maybe "V" was actually made by a whistleblower inside Hollywood who was getting the message out that lizards actually rule the world. He watches Hollywood movies for clues to the truth.

Who are some of the people he thinks are actually lizards?

A very strange assortment of people. Like Kris Kristofferson. I don't know why he thinks Kris Kristofferson is a lizard. "Me and Bobby McGee" is my favorite song and it was not written by a lizard. But when you say to David Icke, "How do you know these people are lizards?" He says, "Well, I did his genealogy." But why would he ever possibly think to ever check out Kris Kristofferson's lizard genealogy in the first place? I asked him, "Well, have you ever done the genealogy of Dennis Healey, a founding member of the Bilderberg Group? And he said, "No, I haven't done it." So how come David Icke -- who believes the Bilderberg Group rules the world -- hasn't done the genealogies of the founders of the Bilderberg Group, but he has done Kris Kristofferson's genealogy?

Let's talk about your time with the Klan. Perhaps the most shocking moment in that whole episode comes when you actually put on the robe and hood. Yet you don't really say very much about how it felt to be a Jew wearing a Klan get-up. All you say is that you're going to feel horribly guilty when Pat, the Klansman who gives you the robe, finds out you're actually Jewish.

Well, that was my actual immediate response. It surprised me, at the time, to be thinking that. So I put it in. But the other thing I was thinking, which maybe I should have put in as well, was -- well, as a kid, I definitely had nightmares about the Klan. The iconography of the robe and the cross burning was etched into my brain. So it was demystifying to put the robe on, and that was good.

It just felt like, say, putting on a bathrobe?


Really? It wasn't strange or scary?

No, it just felt ridiculous. It was clownish, and I found that clownish-ness to be demystifying.

So you weren't really afraid at all while you were spending time with Thom Robb and the Klansmen?

Well, I had nightmares when I was doing the Klan story all the time. I had a recurring nightmare of basically being exposed as a Jew inside the Klan compound.

What about when you visited the Aryan Nations camp in Idaho? It seems as though you were in grave danger. The neo-Nazis surrounded you and were threatening to kill you.

That was a big mistake. They didn't invite me. I didn't even tell them I was coming. I just showed up. I kind of figured if I just jumped out of the car and said, "Hi! I'm a friend of Randy Weaver's!" they would welcome me and it would all be OK. But it wasn't. Obviously it wasn't. I mean, I passed all the "No Jews" signs going up the drive. It would've been my own stupid fault if something had happened. Luckily, that guy got involved to alleviate the tension. I think he was an undercover fed. There are so many undercover feds in that world.

It would've looked really terrible if they killed a visiting British journalist.

But the thing is, they had no reason not to. You know Thom Robb and Omar Bakri and the Bilderberg Group obviously have good reasons not to harm me. But Aryan Nations actually had no reason whatsoever. They're just completely out there. They've got nothing to prove. They do kill people. Plus, they were about to be bulldozed into extinction, you know, because they were going through this court case with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Three or four months after my visit to Aryan Nations it got bulldozed into the ground. They had absolutely nothing to lose. That was a dumb mistake.

Were you nervous before you went to the Aryan Nations camp?

Yeah, really nervous. I'm not what you'd call a fearless type of person.

How did you get up the nerve to do it?

I just kind of felt like I had to. It was the same as infiltrating the Bohemian Grove. That was, again, the last thing in the world I wanted to do. They weren't going to kill me and throw me into the belly of the owl. But they might have me deported from America or have me spend the night in jail. I didn't really feel like doing that either. Without sounding too pretentious, I was sort of a slave to the narrative. When the narrative cracks in, I have to go where it takes me. I had to go to the Bohemian Grove. It was the obvious end to the book.

Did the Klansmen ever ask you about your ethnicity or religion?

At one point, Flavis -- Thom's deputy -- asked me if I was Jewish. He actually said, "I don't mind if you're a Jew. Are you a Jew?" I wanted to tell them I was Jewish, but I didn't want to tell them right then. Because I felt that if I told them I was Jewish, they were going to close up. I knew them well enough to know that they weren't going to harm me, but I knew that they wouldn't be as open with me. I always intended to tell them on the fourth and final trip. And then there was no fourth and final trip. It was tactics. But when Flavis said, "I don't mind," it was kind of like I had my answer. When I did tell them -- had I told them -- that's how they would have responded. They wouldn't have gone, "Oh, after all this, you're Jewish!" They wouldn't have changed toward me. They just would have been more taciturn.

You spent a lot of time with these people. Did you ever feel like you were becoming one of them?

Well, I never stayed with any of them for more than one week at a time. Most people in my position, I guess, would have been with them for five weeks or six weeks. I would be with Thom Robb for five days, then I'd go home for a few weeks, then I'd go back to Thom. The longest I was ever away was two weeks.

Doing the trips in small doses really helped me maintain my sanity. Though in Portugal -- when I was with Big Jim Tucker, trailing the Bilderberg Group -- I really did go a bit crazy, thinking the Bilderberg henchmen were following me. What was scary was when the two worlds began to bleed into each other. There was a little while after I returned to London when I was utterly paranoid about what the Bilderberg Group might do to me. Not that I thought they were going to kill me, but I thought they might be surveilling me or something. Which isn't that crazy to think. I began to get kind of panicky. It made me realize how easy it is to cross the line. It only takes a couple of minor car chases to turn into David Icke, believing that the rulers of the universe are a bunch of lizards. I didn't like that at all.

But there was something nice about being in a Klan compound on Thursday and being at Legoland with [my son] Joel on Saturday. I remember being with the Klan in Missouri. We'd been together really intensively for three days. We'd been together every minute, because we were driving across America together. We checked in to this motel and I turned on the television and flipped channels and "Sesame Street" was on. I actually found myself bursting into tears watching "Sesame Street." I was thinking, These are my people! What am I doing with these Klan people? These are my people. I was really moved by Big Bird. It's funny -- spending time with these people can affect you in a subconscious way that you don't even recognize. It does have an impact. It's like having those nightmares that you're being lynched by the Klan. On a conscious level you're rationalizing things, but it seeps into your unconscious.

So when you were traveling with the Klan or Big Jim Tucker, people must have taken you for a Klansman or what have you. Did this make you uncomfortable? Did you ever feel the urge to unmask yourself?

Well, I did. When I thought I was in serious danger, in Portugal, I asked the British embassy to please pass on a message to the Bilderberg Group, saying that I may be with Jim Tucker, but I'm not of Jim Tucker. Also, for instance, when the Klan were being interviewed by a television reporter, Chris Cox -- the Asian woman that they called "the High Yellow" -- and we walked through the corridors, the people at the television station obviously thought I was a Klansman. Because, you know, it was just the Klan and me. How would they know I wasn't a Klansman? I didn't tell the reporter that I wasn't a Klansman. I was just kind of sitting there. And she just assumed that I was one. Then I saw her the next day, at the Klan rally, and I explained who I was to her. And I did feel the urge to do it. Definitely. I did feel the urge to make her realize that I wasn't one of them.

Was she surprised?

No. She said that she had been perplexed -- because I didn't strike her as a Klansman. She was wondering what I was doing there.

Did you have any trouble getting the extremists to allow you to trail them, sometimes for months at a time? Were they worried that you would mock them?

No. The people who were really difficult were the people on our side of the fence. Like, I heard that the Rockefeller Foundation was teaching a philanthropy course for billionaires, so I tried to get in on it. They just looked at me like, why the hell would we let you in on this? What possible reason could we have to let you in? But on the extremist side I didn't get any rejections at all. Everyone agreed to talk to me.

Interesting, considering their distrust of the Jewish media conspiracy.

Maybe they're just really optimistic. Maybe they think that this time it will be better. And you know, in a way, this time it was different. They don't come out of it all that well, but at least they're not portrayed as demons. The book doesn't isolate them as freak shows. It puts them into the context of the real world. The nicest quote I got was in one of the British papers. The reviewer said that the book doesn't just show that the extremists are weird; it shows that their fantasies take sustenance from the real world. It was really important to me to show that. Otherwise, the book would have been about an ironic outsider with an arched eyebrow. And that would have been a rubbish book, I think.

I say that I was trying to see our world through the extremists' eyes and I'm not being arch. I really was trying to do that. Which is why the [Anti-Defamation League] chapter is so important, the Ruby Ridge chapter is so important. There are the times when we begin to understand what motivates the extremists, what gets them into the whirlpool of paranoia. Because at Ruby Ridge, you know, the federal government acted just like the extremists expected them to. Ruby Ridge is where all conspiracy theories come true.

The whole semiotics of it, the whole getting away with it by calling him [Randy Weaver] a white supremacist, I thought that was really kind of shocking. And for me that makes the book more than just a good, fun adventure story. We have to understand how the extremists got the way they are. Without that kind of understanding, we'd never really get to know them. I put in nothing about their childhoods. But what I have put in is stuff about the weird symbiotic relationship between us and them.

After Sept. 11 there was a strong desire to see the world through the eyes of the terrorists, wasn't there?

The interesting thing about Sept. 11 is that it took a bunch of fanatics to teach us that we do have a belief system. At the beginning of the book I say, "The extremists say that the Western liberal cosmopolitan establishment is itself a fanatical, depraved belief system. I like it when they say this because it makes me feel as if I have a belief system." And I think one legacy of Sept. 11 is that we're now saying, "Fuck you, OK? Our secular, liberal belief system might be fanatical. But fuck you." Which I think is progress. It's taught us how to see ourselves through their eyes, but it's also taught us that we have something worth protecting.

By Joanna Smith Rakoff

Joanna Smith Rakoff is a writer in New York.

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