It’s the Wilderness Years for Militias
When a pipe bomb exploded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, authorities immediately started looking for a right-wing extremist, a rural paramilitary group or a gang of skinheads.
It was a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, three years after the federal raid near Waco, Texas, and four years after the standoff at the Weaver home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The threat posed by antigovernment militants had never seemed more urgent.
Today, when Eric Robert Rudolph pleads guilty to four bombings -- at the Atlanta Olympics, a gay bar and two abortion clinics -- it will be in a very different atmosphere.
Although experts warn that homegrown terrorism is still a danger, the threat has receded from public view. The number of militia groups in the U.S. has dwindled from a high of 858 in the mid-1990s to 152 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A combination of factors, including the Sept. 11 attacks, have caused many groups to draw back from the extreme acts of Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
“My guess is today we’re at the low ebb of a movement that comes and goes,” said Vincent Coppola, author of “Dragons of God: A Journey Through Far-Right America.” Rudolph, he said, “is sort of an artifact of another time. That doesn’t mean the time won’t come again.”
Rudolph was a loner who grew up steeped in extreme ideology. His mother, Patricia, was raised Catholic but led her family on a spiritual quest that took them further and further from the mainstream.
When Rudolph was a teenager, she took him to live at the Missouri compound of Dan Gayman, who was aligned with the Christian Identity movement. Christian Identity holds that white Europeans represent God’s chosen people, and that they must fight what they consider to be Satan’s forces -- including Jews, gays and the government -- in an apocalyptic struggle.
Some in the militia movement were predicting that the Atlanta Olympics would serve as a jumping-off point for the New World Order, a merging of the federal government and the United Nations, said Charles Stone, a former agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and coauthor of “Hunting Eric Rudolph.” All that summer, authorities scrutinized antigovernment groups in the South, hoping to interdict an attack.
Separatist movements took on an apocalyptic urgency in those years. Col. James “Bo” Gritz, a former Green Beret whose radio show made him an icon to the far right, called the decade “the crazy ‘90s” and joked about the “paranoid patriots for profit” who held yearly conventions to prepare for Y2K, the social and technological breakdown that was predicted at the turn of the millennium.
By the end of the decade, a number of factors had weakened the movements. One was the urgency of their predictions. When the turn of the century came and went uneventfully, “a lot of people in the militia movement felt pretty foolish,” said Daniel Levitas, author of “The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.”
Law enforcement officials cracked down on suspected terrorists after Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma and Atlanta bombings alienated less-radical sympathizers. Thom Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said he and other Klan leaders were appalled by McVeigh’s act and were angered to be linked to him.
Finally -- and perhaps most decisively -- came the attacks of Sept. 11, which shifted attention from domestic conflicts to the threat of Islamic fundamentalists.
“I think what happened is we got an outside terror source,” Gritz said. “It’s like the cops showing up at a domestic disturbance. When we are threatened by an outside source, this American family comes together.”
The collapse of the militia movement does not mean right-wing groups pose no danger, said Heidi Beirich, who researches hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As militias faded, the number of hate groups increased, she said, and every year since the Oklahoma City bombing, federal authorities have prevented at least one major bombing plan. Last year, a raid of the East Texas home of William Krar yielded a sodium-cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands.
Those still in the movement are “more militant in their outlook” and remain committed to the same goals, Levitas said. But they attract less attention after Sept. 11.
“I think there are a lot of people who look at these guys as a bunch of rednecks and troublemakers and not necessarily a serious threat,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and expert on domestic terrorism. “You would hope that Oklahoma City would have shown them that it doesn’t take geniuses to put together a pretty significant bomb.”
Rudolph has failed to evoke sympathy even among extremists, said Larry Brown, an expert on the Christian Identity movement. Brown, a geography instructor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, senses “ambivalence in the movement: Should they praise Rudolph or should they defend him?”
It’s an easy question for Gritz. A strong opponent of abortion, Gritz said he longed for Rudolph to take the stand in the abortion clinic bombings and say, “Like a hero, ‘I did it and if you let me go, I’d likely do it again.’ ” Gritz does not believe Rudolph is responsible for the Olympic bombing.
Gritz has a long history of involvement in clashes between separatists and federal agents. He helped negotiate an end to the standoff at Ruby Ridge, where Randy Weaver refused to surrender to federal marshals on a weapons charge. Weaver’s son, Sammy, and a federal agent were killed in a shootout, and an FBI sniper killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki.
He made a similar bid in the Rudolph case. In 1998, eight months after Rudolph disappeared into the woods of North Carolina, Gritz headed a group of men whose goal was to convince Rudolph to surrender.
Six years later, Gritz said he was disgusted to hear the news of the plea bargain.
“He turns out not to be a hero but a coward,” Gritz said. “Now he’s just another sniveling coward who is afraid of the system.”
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