Groups that have consciously and unconsciously adopted the countersubversion model promoted by centrist/extremist theory were quick to call for increased government power to fend off the perceived threat to law and order posed by the armed militia movement. Calls to unleash the FBI were especially strident following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
A typical example was a Wall Street Journal column by Max Boot who reached back to the countersubversion scapegoating of earlier times. Boot suggested that a wave of serious anarchist terrorism began with opposition to US participation in World War One. According to Boot, “From 1914 to 1917, anarchists set off a number of blasts in New York and Boston. Most didn’t cause any major injuries, but a 1917 explosion in Milwaukee killed 10 policemen,” Boot then implied that the widespread government repression of the post-WWI period was at least mitigated by what Boot sees as the successful crushing of the dangerous subversive anarchist terror movement. He then draws parallels to right-wing militias of today and suggests their potential for terror can best be handled by granting the government sweeping powers of surveillance and infiltration. But reliable accounts of the period after WWI differ with Boot’s description of events. He is using a popular countersubversion myth to justify new state repression.
Even Louis F. Post, the Labor Department official who signed the deportation order for anarchist Emma Goldman after the Palmer Raids in 1919-1920, later wrote a book where he argued that no evidence of a widespread subversive conspiracy among anarchist immigrants ever emerged:
It seemed to me at the time, and the impression has been deepened by subsequent developments, that if there were any alien conspirators in the United States who were at all dangerous to its institutions, its free institutions, the detectives of the Department of Justice did not `hit their trail’….Cases in which there was substantial proof of any unlawful act with sinister intent or guilty knowledge were exceptions-very rare exceptions.
Of course, even if the government had found a criminal conspiracy among so-called “aliens” the broad draconian dragnet of the Palmer Raids would still have been a civil liberties nightmare.
Based on countersubversion myth, and the false portrayal of all members of the armed militia movement as extremists-even terrorist neonazis, the Clinton administration pushed through the “Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” called by civil liberties activists a “draconian” piece of legislation “which places the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections at grave risk.” This repressive legislation received support from several leading human relations groups that argued it would help curb the threat of violence from the militias. There was no evidence to support this claim, and the bulk of the legislation had been written and rejected prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. The legislation was supported by politicians pointing to militia involvement in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the terrorist bombing of the TWA flight that exploded near New York while en route to Paris. There is no current evidence to tie militias to the Oklahoma City bombing or terrorists to the crash of the airplane.
Embracing the conspiracist countersubversion myth woven into centrist/extremist theory justifies state repression. It encourages us to look the other way when militant rightists are gunned down without benefit of trial by law enforcement officers. This has happened repeatedly in recent years, not only with the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, but also in a series of killings of rightists starting with the farm crisis in the 1980s. These included Gordon Kahl, a rightist tax protester who became a Posse Comitatus organizer, killed in 1983; and Robert Mathews, a leader of the violent White Supremacist group The Order, killed in 1984. Both these people were despicable racists and antisemites, but that did not justify the government’s gross misjudgments and casual use of deadly force that resulted in their deaths.
There has also been the use of questionable legal tactics, such as the prosecution on charges of seditious conspiracy of White supremacist leaders in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The witnesses who testified about the alleged conspiracy were so dubious that the case was rejected by jurors who found the defendants not guilty. During the McCarthy period charges of criminal seditious conspiracy were used in the political witch hunt against communism. When the government announced the sedition trial of White supremacists in Fort Smith, Arkansas, one person to object was Arthur Kinoy, a well-known leftist civil rights attorney and respected constitutional scholar who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Kinoy, who had defended persons charged with communist sedition in the 1950’s, agreed the White supremacists in the Ft. Smith case were “disgusting,” but he said “I’m worried about the charge of sedition against anyone.” Kinoy expressed concern with the legal charge of sedition, noting its historical use by the government to attack all dissent, especially on the left.
Silverglate agreed: “I know it is a tricky and emotional issue, but sedition is a very serious charge, and to bring it in the Aryan Nations case at Fort Smith was patently absurd. You can’t be cheering when the government brings a charge of sedition against the Aryan Nations crowd and then be complaining when they bring it against your friends.
We must recognize that fear of government repression is not just paranoia. Government officials to this day refuse to admit that negligent bureaucratic brutality at Ruby Ridge, Idaho against the Weaver family and at Waco, Texas against the Branch Davidians could cause any citizen to be distrustful or cynical about government. These were clear examples of government misconduct and abuse of power. The answer to the resurgent right should never be allowing the government to curtail civil liberties. It is wrong philosophically, and it gives the government a huge new club to beat up on leftwing dissidents-the more typical victims of government repression.
This is an excerpt of an article, “Repression and Ideology: The Legacy of Discredited Centrist/Extremist Theory,” that originally appeared in Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report Vol. 5, Nos. 13-14, Jan-Feb., and March-April 1998. Copyright 1998, the West Group.