Home-grown Terror

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In 1940 the prosecutors seeking convictions against the Christian Front discovered that they faced an uphill struggle. They had to work with a hostile jury, which probably included some Coughlin sympathizers. The trial effectively collapsed by midyear, with the accused returning to a heroes’ welcome in Brooklyn. Coughlin himself, ecstatic, proclaimed, “God bless … the Christian Front!” and he redoubled his efforts until the outbreak of war permitted the government to close his newspaper and finally silence him. The failure of the trials damaged the administration as much as it strengthened the far right. It made the Justice Department much more cautious about pressing criminal charges against potential terrorist or subversive groups, and it raised public doubts about the seriousness of the charges and the conduct of the FBI. Some Republican congressmen dismissed the whole idea of armed militias as a red herring meant to ensure Roosevelt’s re-election in 1940.

Perhaps law-enforcement officials should bear this precedent in mind over the coming months, as prosecutors formulate charges related to the Oklahoma affair. American courts have always been willing to convict individuals of specific acts of terrorist violence, but only as long as the prosecutions didn’t appear to be political or attempt to use one incident to stigmatize a whole movement or subculture. The Christian Front trial was one of many in which juries simply refused to believe wide-ranging charges of sedition or revolutionary conspiracy, even when the evidence may have seemed overwhelming to a casual observer. Another example is the 1988 acquittals of the right-wing leaders accused of involvement with the Order’s terrorist schemes. The administration might want to cast the widest possible net in the wake of the Oklahoma City calamity, but past experience suggests that this would be counterproductive and even perilous.

Some thirty years ago Rlchard Hofstadter published his classic essay on what he called “the paranoid style in American politics.” He argued that a strand of conspiracy politics, defining events in terms of a constant struggle between good and evil, could be traced through all of American history. Successive generations have blamed the nation’s problems on villains ranging from Illuminati and Freemasons through Catholics, Communists, and Jews. Hofstadter’s analysis certainly applies to both the Coughlinites and the modern far right, but his account doesn’t address how often conspiracy theories have led to actual organized armed violence and active terrorism. Until recently, perhaps even until Oklahoma City, Americans tended to think of terrorism as a foreign menace that could somehow be excluded from our shores. But it has indeed happened here, on numerous occasions, and the perpetrators would often have described themselves as patriotic Christian Americans. Today’s militias are only the most recent manifestation of a long tradition. To stress that terrorism is no historical newcomer in this country is not to trivialize recent events but to appreciate what is in fact a powerful, if little understood, thread in American political history.