Home-grown Terror


In both eras access to weapons became a critical issue too. In the mid1950s Congress passed the first federal gun-control law, banning the private possession of automatic weapons and machine guns. This aroused nothing like the furor over recent restrictions on assault rifles, but then as now such federal controls were depicted as an attempt to disarm the American people so they could be tyrannized—and then as now one response was military-style training and organization. Infiltration of the armed services in order to obtain weapons and supplies was a recurrent theme in exposés of the Christian Front and its contemporaries, and since the 1980s modern paramilitary groups have been charged with the same thing. Once again The Turner Diaries presents a detailed account of how and why it should be done. All in all a very small step leads from the 1930s underworld described by John Roy Carlson to the 1980s and 1990s one represented by the Order in both its fictional and reallife manifestations.

If the violent extreme right of the 1930s was so similar to that of today, then we should be able to learn from that generation’s experience—from both its success in destroying the groups so thoroughly and its various failures as well. One important question to consider is whether extremism is best confronted or ignored. Today and in the 1930s alike, many people have held extremist views without the least likelihood of ever actually becoming violent. For a government, a critical goal is to ensure that those peacefully disaffected don’t progress to the next stage of active armed resistance. This can be a tough challenge. Following the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton won both praise and blame for his effort to associate the tragedy with a climate of hatred and suspicion fostered by the far right. This had the virtue of drawing attention to paramilitary and other groups that had been largely ignored in the mainstream press, but it could be dangerous as well.

In this context the 1930s offer mixed lessons. The Coughlinite movement arose in a comparable environment, inspired by a popular radio personality with a mass audience of loyal followers. Once Coughlin embarked on his anti-Jewish crusades, people began to feel he was actively encouraging intolerance and racial violence and started urging that his broadcasts be controlled or suppressed. These calls became overwhelming following Germany’s Kristallnacht attacks on Jews in November 1938, and stations in New York and other cities announced that they would refuse to carry his programs without first reviewing his scripts. But this permitted Coughlin to pose as a martyr, and his supporters found in the situation final proof that the media were under Red and Jewish control. They organized mass pickets of the offending radio stations and turned out thousands of demonstrators a week for months afterward; the rallies became the major source of recruitment for the growing Christian Front. In the end the attempt to fight hate speech served only to confirm the conspiracy theories of people already deeply suspicious of the government. It may have actually increased racist agitation.

If the violent extreme right of the 1930s was so similar to today’s, we should be able to learn from it.

Though that attempt to silence Coughlin was a disaster, the Roosevelt administration hoped to fare better with the arrest of his Christian Front followers, which might discredit the extreme right by portraying the whole anti-Semitic underworld as a realm of terrorists and their disciples. But problems soon arose. The political cost of putting a Catholic priest on trial made it impossible to prosecute Coughlin himself or any of the fire-eating antiSemitic clergy in the Brooklyn diocese. Even militants as outspoken as Bishop were difficult to convict, because seeking to overthrow the government is very hard to prove.

Once the Christian Front trial got under way, in early 1940, defense lawyers alleged that the whole case was a government frame-up and showed that at least one of the main activists was an FBI double agent. This raised the perennial problem of counterterrorist policing. Any law-enforcement agency worth its salt will try to find informants within potentially violent groups and plant agents who can forestall violent acts. But when such moles are revealed, defendants can argue that the agents were either provocateurs trying to entrap them or liars describing imaginary plots to please their superiors. The defense is likely to assert that the informant himself first suggested acts of violence or took seriously talk to which no one else gave any weight. Juries are often convinced by these arguments. Indeed, accusations about police informants have been the major source of controversy in the trial of Muslim fundamentalists accused of planning bomb attacks around New York City.