White Bandits of the West : THE SILENT BROTHERHOOD Inside America’s Racist Underground <i> by Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt (The Free Press: $22.95; 402 pp.) </i>

<i> Johnson is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington. His most recent book is "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."</i>

On June 18, 1984, Alan Berg, the controversial radio personality, was gunned down in Denver by members of the Silent Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi terrorist group based in the Pacific Northwest and dedicated to establishing an “Aryan homeland” in five Western states.

Two reporters for the Rocky Mountain News, Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, covered this now famous murder case, then took their investigation further by spending four years exploring the key personalities of the radical right and “Christian Identity” churches that produced the Silent Brotherhood’s leader, Robert Mathews--a martyr to some skinheads--and a sub-culture of about 20,000 zealots spread from Los Angeles to Canada, from the Ozarks to West Germany. The political importance of their research, presented with narrative flair and the novelistic techniques of the new journalism in “The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America’s Racist Underground,” cannot be stressed enough.

According to Flynn and Gerhardt, the constituency of the far right is as wide as the badly wounded American psyche. From the center to the fringe of this political phenomenon are tax-evaders who believe the IRS is unconstitutional or that their money is being used to support Communist schemes. They are Vietnam veterans embittered by the lack of respect for their military service; former hippies who drifted toward Christian fundamentalism; ordinary, underemployed people, college professors among them, who feel Jews control the economy, who hate race-mixing, homosexuals and feminists, believe Affirmative Action cost them their jobs and will make white children second-class citizens; and people who simply believe, “Blacks, browns, and others celebrate their racial identity, so it (can’t) be wrong . . . for whites to feel good about their race as well.”


By tracing Mathews’ early life in Arizona and death on Whidbey Island in 1984, Flynn and Gerhardt provide us with the terrifying psychological evolution of an “all-American boy” who, at 11, was so frightened by the Cold War climate of the 1950s that he joined the John Birch Society. Five years later, while still in high school, he found himself attending tax-resistance seminars taught by Marvin Cooley. “The very act of paying income tax, which he thought was illegal, was aiding the communist cause,” write the authors. “Somehow his hatred of the Russians was turning around into anger at his own country. . . .”

By age 19, he’d formed the Sons of Liberty, a paramilitary group modeled after the Minutemen, and trained secretly with them in the Arizona desert. That drew the attention of federal agents. Putting aside politics for a time, Mathews moved to the tiny, rural community of Metaline Falls in Washington State, and seemed briefly content to live a pioneer life and work his land there.

Enter Richard Butler, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian near Hayden Lake, Ida. Mathews gravitated toward Butler, whose plan was--and still is--to consolidate the fragmented segments of the far right on the basis of a religion that teaches “today’s . . . white Christians (are) the true people of the covenant,” and not Jews. He proclaims that, “hate is our law and revenge is our duty,” and from his compound, where he prepares for racial Armageddon, Butler holds a yearly Aryan World Congress that attracts members from numerous right-wing groups linked by sophisticated computer equipment and their mutual hatred of ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government).

Among these people, with their hidden survivalist camps, and study groups devoted to a library of racist literature, Mathews met co-conspirators who would form the inner circle of the Silent Brotherhood. “If we were half the men the leftists are,” said one associate, “we’d be hitting armored cars. . . .” Mathews, tired of all talk and no action, took this advice to heart. By then he was studying Odinism (the worship of Norse gods) and reading William Pierce’s novel, “The Turner Diaries,” which depicts the counterfeiting, armored-car robberies, and assassinations of a white supremacist group named the Order.

Using this novel as the basis for his own gang, and at first the name of its fictional terrorists, Mathews’ “action group” began counterfeiting money as a way to fund a wide range of extremist organizations and sympathizers. Then came bombing a synagogue in Boise, sticking up a pornography shop and bank in Spokane, the murder of Alan Berg (also slated for death were TV producer Norman Lear and a civil rights lawyer) and armored-car robberies at Seattle’s Northgate Mall and in Ukiah, Calif., that netted the gang more than $3 million, a portion of that was put aside to build a guerrilla boot camp that would lead to “stage six” of Mathews’ plan: the sabotage of power and communication centers in major cities.

As the authors report, these were “the most wanted bandits in the West.” The rest is criminal history and, to the credit of Flynn and Gerhardt, a page-turner of a story about the police work that brought Mathews’ storm troopers to justice.

But Butler predicts that the members of the Silent Brotherhood “will become heroes to our grandchildren, like John Paul Jones and Sam Adams.” As the FBI closed in, Mathews furiously wrote letters and declarations of war. “It is now a dark and dismal time in the history of our race . . . we have become a people dispossessed,” he said. “Our heroes and our culture have been insulted and degraded. . . . Throughout this land our children are being coerced into accepting nonwhites for their idols, their companions, and worst of all their mates. . . .”

A pluralistic vision of America is the goal toward which this country has been trying to move for 20 years, a much wider sense of “brotherhood,” but for a few--and even a few is too many--the effort to achieve equality and unity within diversity has transformed their feelings of betrayal into insurrection. Flynn and Gerhardt have written a book that is essential reading for every American. It is a work we cannot ignore if, as a nation, we hope to survive this century.