A Force Upon the Plain is the most comprehensive of the outpouring of books inspired by the Oklahoma City bombing, based as it is upon an elaborately researched examination of the radical paramilitary right. However, Kenneth Stern is by no means a newcomer cashing in on post-Oklahoma jitters. As a long-established researcher for the American Jewish Committee, he can legitimately claim to have issued a public forewarning that something very bad was likely to happen on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of Waco. As will be known to anyone who has ever delved into the more bizarre reaches of the political fringe, the best resources are generally to be found in the archives of Jewish groups like the AJC and the Anti- Defamation League, and it is not surprising that Stern’s book is so amply documented. It is at its best when describing the neo-Nazi loons inspired by William Pierce’s book The Turner Diaries (though even Stern seems not to know the almost equally influential text Hunter, also by Pierce, which portrays terrorist activism by lone “berserkers”). As such, Stern’s book is likely to become a standard reference work, and to this extent it can be recommended.
Even so, there is much that is troubling about Stern’s approach, and the underlying ideological assumptions of the enterprise. For example, the biographical note asserts that the author is “an expert on hate and hate groups.” Expert, certainly, but what exactly is “hate,” beyond a generic psychological phenomenon? Presumably a communist practices hate when he excoriates class injustice, just as a radical environmentalist mobilizes hate against the corporations and agencies which despoil the environment. The Nation of Islam both practices and preaches hate of the worst kind when its whole political theology is based on hastening the day when white devils will no longer pollute the earth they have corrupted and enslaved. In some sense, hate is integral to the rhetoric of any militant or extremist movement, yet today the term is only applied selectively to the politics of the radical right.
Stern evinces little concern for definition, hate being an easily recognizable thing. In the context of this book, the term applies to a remarkably wide range of groups, mostly united by their extreme suspicion of the purported benevolence of government; in addition to overt Nazis, it includes “White Supremacists,” though most of these are interested less in dominating rival races than in achieving the largest degree of geographical separation. “White Nationalist,” while more accurate, is presumably unacceptable for not being sufficiently pejorative: it is too objective by half. The “hate” category also comprehends Identity Christians, marked by a theory of racial separation and bizarre biological views; in fact, they are near clones of the Nation of Islam, though the latter are conspicuous here by their virtual absence.
A great many people qualify for inclusion in this book for expressing skepticism of the federal battle honors of Waco and Ruby Ridge; for their concern regarding the surrender of American sovereignty to supranational entities like the United Nations; for their unhappiness with federal land management policies; or for holding views about taxation and representation similar to those expressed forcefully at Lexington on April 19, 1775. And “hate” emphatically includes the ideas of any group militantly opposed to any further extension of gun control. After all, “some minimal regulation of guns makes sense to the majority of Americans,” and the quite sweeping laws already in place fall far short of the “quite minimal” standards desired by Stern. If you have doubts about the logic or constitutionality of this position, then you are already well on the road to “hate.” For Stern, no acceptable legal or moral justification permits an individual or group to conclude that in American law and tradition, the right of self-government is based upon the personal liberties of an armed people.
White supremacists, gun-control opponents, survivalists, theorists of religious or racial apocalypse, conspiracy advocates, radical-right critics of government, even some UFO believers: for Stern, all these groups are thrown together with Nazi extremists like those of the Order, and of isolated militants like those who carried out the attack in Oklahoma City. All are “Patriots,” racists, and anti-Semites, and thereby part of the “politics of hate.” If “hate” is so abominable, and so richly deserving of exclusion from public debate, then we are left with a remarkably narrow spectrum of appropriate political expression. In fact, it runs the whole gamut of ideology, from A to about H.
Even if we accept Stern’s expansive definition of “hate,” there is little justification for thinking it unprecedented in its contemporary manifestation, and still less for concluding that we are witnessing an “epidemic of hate.” Militia and vigilante activity in modern America is sparse compared to that in the 19th century, which embroiled many cities and states in something like civil war (in fairness. Stern takes some account of this bloody heritage). In the present century, paramilitary upsurges have tended to occur in the two or three nervous years following the displacement of a conservative Republican administration by a liberal Democratic President, as witness the shirt groups and Bund activity of the mid-1930’s, the Birchers and Minutemen of the 1960’s, and, today, fatigued men in the woods of Michigan and Oregon.
In stark contrast, contemporary race relations are radically different from what they have been in the past, and active racial hatred today is at an absolute historical low. This might seem a curious statement given the “surging epidemic” of hate crime evidenced by official statistics over the last decade. But these figures indicate only altered sensibilities, while the mere fact of collection demonstrates a state of mind quite unthinkable a few decades ago. If shouting a racial epithet denoted a “hate crime,” how many million such crimes occurred in 1930, compared to the few hundred precisely recorded by today’s bureaucrats? The clearest evidence of such a racial sea-change came last year, with the absurd outcome of the O.J. Simpson case. While local authorities were gearing up for a black uprising in the event of conviction, nobody suggested that white protesters might riot in the streets, or attempt to impose lynch law. Could such racial quiescence reasonably have been anticipated in any decade of American history prior to the 1970’s? Black and white, post-civil rights generations have thoroughly internalized the ideologies of that movement, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
In other forms of bigotry also, we live in a golden age of tolerance. Stern can certainly find plenty of asinine and unpleasant remarks about Jews from his subjects, and similar ideas have polluted radical-right conspiracy theory. Consciously or otherwise, the concept of the “New World Order” does indeed have roots in the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Nazi militants do declare war upon the Zionist Occupation Government, ZOG. But owing to the overwhelming power of the holocaust in American culture and rhetoric, and the ensuing idealization of the state of Israel, active anti-Semitism is virtually absent from contemporary politics, at least anywhere remotely near the mainstream. This is the first era in which a career can be irretrievably destroyed by an overt racist remark, or even by what is interpreted, however tendentiously, as a “coded” remark about some ethnic group. (Exceptions are allowed for Arabs or Serbs, on whom permanent open season has been declared.)
Though the Oklahoma City bombing showed that rightist paramilitaries could indeed pose a deadly terrorist threat on American soil, it is far from obvious that the event has any connection with the broader radical and antigovernment views held by millions of peaceful citizens. A Force Upon the Plain is useful for what it reveals about hard-core terrorists, but its extravagant account of the “politics of hate” should be read with skepticism.
[A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate, by Kenneth S. Stern (New York: Simon and Schuster) 303 pp., $24.00]