'Bring The War Home' Shows 'Lone Wolf' Terrorists Are Really Part Of A Pack

Apr 22, 2018
Originally published on April 22, 2018 12:04 pm

Last year, when neo-Nazis and members of the so called alt-right demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., many Americans evinced shock that such a thing could happen: A demonstration of the white power movement, in 2017. But it's only the latest in a history of social activism that goes back decades — and, as Kathleen Belew argues in her new book, Bring the War Home, we ignore that history at our peril. In it, she explains what many disparate events have in common — the war in Vietnam.

"It's called Bring the War Home because that provided the clearest way of thinking about a problem I ran into in the archive," Belew says, "which is that Klansmen and neo-Nazis committing violence in the United States — ranging from veterans to those who didn't serve in the war — commonly understood the Vietnam War and invoked the war to describe why they chose the activism they did, and to frame their tactics and their uses of violence in many different contexts."


Interview Highlights

On the importance of leaderless resistance to the domestic terrorism that began in the 1980s.

Leaderless resistance, first of all, made it less important to recruit large numbers of people — because now the movement was focused on smaller, totally committed activists, rather than turning out a bunch of weekend activists for a rally. It made it really important for the activists to have enough in common culturally to understand their shared goals, and that's another place where the narrative of the Vietnam War became very important to them. And it also made it very difficult to prosecute white power violence or to understand it as a social movement, because its actions could be more readily understood and dismissed in both courts and in media portrayals as the acts of one, or a few individuals.

On the myth of the "lone wolf" terrorist — for example, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh

Portraying the Oklahoma City bombing particularly as the work of one, or a few actors worked to totally erase what the country had understood about white power violence before that event. One of the misconceptions is that Timothy McVeigh acted alone or with a few conspirators. But McVeigh — a simple social geography of Timothy McVeigh shows that he was involved in this movement for years before the bombing. So this points to a motivated and ideologically framed attack.

What seems new and alarming in our current moment is not new. These events were covered in the front pages of national newspapers, on morning news magazine shows, and yet, somehow we lost the understanding of this movement, such that the altercation in Charlottesville can seem astonishing to people without this history.

On the link between America's ongoing wars and the rise of the alt-right

The history shows us that this movement never received a definitive stop in court or in public opinion. In every surge of Ku Klux Klan activism in American history, there's a strong correlation with the aftermath of warfare. The aftermath of warfare has correlated with widespread violence across all groups of American civilians, not just veterans but throughout American society. And in those surges of violence, groups like this have found resurgent memberships.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Last year when neo-Nazis and members of the so-called alt-right demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., many Americans evinced shock that such a thing could happen in 2017. But Charlottesville is only the latest in a history of white-power activism that goes back decades. And as Kathleen Belew argues in her new book, "Bring The War Home," we ignore that history at our peril. In it, she explains what many disparate events have in common, from Ruby Ridge to the Oklahoma City bombing. Many of those threads go back to the Vietnam War.

KATHLEEN BELEW: It's called "Bring The War Home" because that provided the clearest way of thinking about a problem I ran into in the archive, which was that Klansmen and neo-Nazis committing violence in the United States, ranging from veterans to those who didn't serve in the war, commonly understood the Vietnam War and invoked the war to describe why they chose the activism they did and to frame their tactics and their uses of violence in many different contexts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kathleen Belew says the terrorism that arose in the 1980s within the white-power movement came in the form of small cells of just a half a dozen men, creating what she calls a leaderless resistance.

BELEW: Leaderless resistance first of all made it less important to recruit large numbers of people because now the movement was focused on smaller, totally committed activists rather than turning out a bunch of weekend activists for a rally. It made it really important for the activists to have enough in common culturally to understand their shared goals. And that's another place where the narrative of the Vietnam War became very important to them. And it also made it very difficult to prosecute white-power violence or to understand it as a social movement because its actions could be more readily understood and dismissed in both courts and in media portrayals as the acts of one or a few individuals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I'd like to touch on that last thing that you just spoke about. You write about this particular period where there was a huge increase in domestic terrorism. And the media, law enforcement, government agencies kept on portraying these acts as isolated as - as the work of a fringe element or a lone, disturbed wolf. To this day, the myth that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber - persists that he acted alone. What did that get wrong? What was problematic with people seeing it as isolated events as opposed to part of a big movement?

BELEW: Portraying the Oklahoma City bombing, particularly, as that - as the work of one or a few actors worked to totally erase what the country had understood about white-power violence before that event. One of the misconceptions is that Timothy McVeigh acted alone or with the help of a few conspirators. But McVeigh - a simple social geography of Timothy McVeigh shows that he was involved in this movement for years before the bombing. So this points to a motivated and ideologically framed attack.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say that the fact that we see the Oklahoma City bombing through this lens as an individual actor, and we don't see it as part of the white power movement and its capacity for violence - you say that that's remarkable. What is the problem with that?

BELEW: I think the main thing is that what seems new and alarming in our current moment is not new. These events were covered in the front pages of national newspapers, on morning news magazine shows. And yet somehow we lost the understanding of this movement such that the altercation in Charlottesville can seem astonishing to people without this history. But this history shows us that what seems new is not new.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you point out, we are in a period where two long wars are taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan that have sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to battle. And those men and women have been coming home. And you link this with the 2016 election as well, with the rhetoric of the so-called alt-right that has become mainstream. You see this as part of the continuum.

BELEW: Yes. The history shows us that this movement never received a definitive stop in court or in public opinion. In every surge of Ku Klux Klan activism in American history, there is a strong correlation with the aftermath of warfare. The aftermath of warfare has correlated with widespread violence across all groups of American civilians - not just veterans but throughout American society. And in those searches of violence, groups like this have found resurgent memberships.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that really concerns people nowadays after the 2016 election and the rise of the alt-right and some of the demonstrations we've seen by white-power groups in different parts of the country is that their sort of insidious messaging of white power has entered the mainstream, in some ways, in political discourse and in just personal discourse in the way that people talk about certain issues. Is that a victory of sorts?

BELEW: If you look at the '80s, which is sort of the peak moment of membership, you can think of in concentric circles. There's sort of an inner circle of around 25,000 hardcore activists. Those are people that really live the movement and who have their whole social lives organized by the movement, who would sooner die than abandon their beliefs. And then outside of that, there is a broader circle of like 150,000 to 175,000 people who are not as dedicated but who show up to rallies, buy literature. Then outside of them, there's a bigger circle of 450,000 people who don't themselves buy the literature but who read the literature. And you might imagine that this goes on and on, right? Outside of the people who read the literature are people who would never read a Klan newspaper but might agree with an idea that appears in one if it's brought up to them by a friend in some particular context.

So the way that these ideas travel from that hardcore fringe to the mainstream is something that deserves a lot of thought and attention because this movement of very extreme activists had a lot of social issues in common with the mainstream right in the 1980s. So by the time David Duke was running on presidential campaigns, the platform issues that he advocated would make their way from the David Duke platform to the Pat Buchanan platform to the George H.W. Bush platform. In the period of my study, I think what's interesting is that this ideology is very flexible and very opportunistic such that people can take or leave various parts of it in order to allow for broader recruitment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kathleen Belew is the author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." Thank you so much.

BELEW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.