When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Dr. Kathleen Belew: The History of the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
Dr. Kathleen Belew talks about the white power movement and the role of veterans in the movement’s history.
Dr. Belew is a professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, and the nation's foremost expert on the involvement of military veterans in the white power movement. She is the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
Kenneth Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Dr. Kathleen Belew: The shooting in Charleston was an anti-black shooting. And the shooting in Pittsburgh was an anti-Semitic shooting. The shooting in El Paso was an anti-Latino shooting...But they all had white power gunmen who share not only those particular hatreds, but this web of social connection, and this long history, and these clear ideologies.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Dr. Kathleen Belew, professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, and the nation's foremost expert on the involvement of military veterans in the white power movement. She is the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Dr. Belew, thank you for joining us on Burn the Boats.
KB: Thank you very much for having me.
KH: You have described America today as a militarized state. The title of your book, in fact, refers to paramilitary America. Can you explain what you mean by that?
KB: Absolutely. So paramilitary for me is just the presence of military things - and this could be language, uniforms, weapons, tactics, thinking - in places outside of the military apparatus. So militarized society outside of the military counts. So does the presence of military language to describe civilian life or civilian activity. The use of military uniforms in a non-military way. And of course, the overflow of military weapons and technologies of killing into civilian spaces.
KH: Can you give us some examples? I mean, the mind naturally goes to our increasingly militarized police forces and other contexts where you might imagine it. But you also talk about the public at large becoming more warlike.
KB: Absolutely. So in the book, I really try to look at paramilitarization as a process that's occurring in multiple spheres of American society. So I'm principally interested in how this works within the white power movement. And I imagine we'll get back to that in a moment. But you can see this sort of anywhere. I mean, if you walk down the Halloween costumes aisle at Target, you'll find opportunities for kids to dress up as soldiers, as SWAT team members. If you walk down the toy aisle, you'll see tactical Nerf gun vests. We can think about paintball courses, and camo fatigue uniforms, and all of the different video games that encourage us into this mind frame. And the thing about that is that it really does cross out of these recreational and cultural spaces into places where it does real violence. So we can see this arc in the way that civilian policing has become militarized, the way that different parts of our law enforcement apparatuses have become militarized. And it really does lead to higher casualty counts all over.
KH: So let's tie this to the American wartime experience, which is your expertise. We are still, although most Americans don't want to realize it, still engaged in the longest wars in American history. And you have dived deep into this reality that after every overseas adventure that America has ever embarked upon, American soldiers, and sailors, and airmen, and Marines return with an infectious mentality that is driven by that wartime experience. Explain that to us, and then how it is so pervasive across the culture.
KB: I'm not sure if I would say infectious mentality exactly. When I entered this project, what you can notice just from looking at the rises and falls in activity by the KKK, by other vigilante groups, is that the best predictor for vigilante violence throughout American history is not poverty, or populism, or rising immigration, or civil rights movement activity. The best predictor is the aftermath of warfare. So the opening question I had was exactly what you've sort of just outlined, was whether this was really a problem of veterans and active duty troops coming back and not being able to turn off the violence of combat. We might think of it as a sort of a Rambo story. And that definitely seems to be the case for some people who rose to prominence in the white power movement. It certainly is true that veterans have had an outsized impact in these groups, because they bring weapons, expertise, and training, and all kinds of other skills that amplify violence. But I think that - one of the things I take away from this project is that this aftermath period is not just about veterans and the military. There's sociological work that shows us that all Americans, across age group, across gender, across who did and did not serve, everyone becomes more violent in the aftermath of warfare. So I think what we're looking at is something much more complex about how society is mobilized for conflict, and how much we don't do the work of deescalating afterward such that we restrain those violent impulses when we return to civilian life.
KH: That's what I wanted to get at, the idea that society itself and not just the veterans who returned to it, but the broader culture becomes more violent in the wake of war.
KH: But can you drive that point home? Because one interpretation could dwell on the affectations of violence, the costumes that you pointed out around Halloween, or the language, or just the way that the coverage of war seeps into our national consciousness in the way we talk about it in the popularity of camo now. My kids are wearing camo backpacks. That's not violence-
KB: No. But it is-
KH: But you are talking about actually impacting the behavior of society at large.
KB: So the thing is that the paramilitary fatigues, and camo backpacks, and the Nerf guns, and all of that are not easily disentangled from real violence. So if we look at something like policing, part of the thing that happens is just at the level of wearing uniforms, right? We can trace the movement from police officers wearing nothing but the blue uniform to special units and paramilitary units that wear tactical vests, and combat style boots, and paramilitary uniforms that are camo fatigues or other kinds of paramilitary uniforms. That goes with a kind of training that dramatically escalates casualties. Including things like paramilitary training from special forces like changing the language so that they are using militarized language to describe what they're doing. To things like proactive patrolling where they're not just doing something that might be recognizable as community policing, but they're actually out in these paramilitary uniforms looking for ways to provoke a violent confrontation.
KH: Drawing fire.
KB: Right, exactly. And those kinds of changes as many scholars have documented, have really changed the character of American policing, and have amplified both our incarceration problem, and our problem of communities enduring violence at the hands of officers who are theoretically there to protect them.
KH: I want to pivot to white power in just a second. But one of the things that as a veteran is so striking about that shift, which we all see to the militarization of our police forces, is just how at odds it actually is with how we often operated overseas. And to be clear, I was a Navy pilot. My closest view of the battlefield for the most part was from 30,000 feet. But from all the ground pounders I talked to and am close with, I mean if they had the same rules of engagement in Fallujah or anywhere in Afghanistan that we seem to apply on some of America's streets, the blood baths never would have stopped. I mean, it's almost as if these lessons are twisted when they're brought home to be even more permissive.
KB: That's really interesting. And I think one of the things that we could add to the conversation is that if you look at the way that these tactics themselves evolved, they were kind of deeply intertwined with domestic policing even before this paramilitary turn. So historians have documented the way that anti-civilian tactics are visible in communities of color in the United States, and are then exported to Vietnam and then brought back again. So the way that these things evolved are also deeply imbricated in our own history of racial injustice within the United States borders.
KH: So let's talk about the white power movement and the integral role that this admittedly very small percentage of returning vets have played in it. First of all, can you help us align on terms?
KH: You are very specific in your use of the phrase white power. Explain why.
KB: Thank you very much for that question. I think that this is one of the places that our discourse sometimes fails us. A term that people use for this often is white nationalism. And that is correct from a sort of political science perspective. These are people who are often interested in a nation that centers whiteness. But the thing is that the people that I study after 1983, the nation and white nationalism is not the United States. The nation is the Aryan nation. It's imagined as a transnational group of white people who are united together and facing an apocalyptic threat from demographic change that will eradicate the white race. This is a fundamentally more radical thing than most people think of if you say white nationalism. This is not an overexertion of patriotism for instance, or any kind of American-ness. This is an anti-democratic and anti-American movement. And the other place where people get confused is where this sits within the bigger problem of white supremacy. So when historians use the phrase white supremacy, what we're talking about includes belief, meaning individuals who believe that white people are better than other people. And within that group, some of them are willing to say that they believe that, and some are not. And within that group of people who are willing to admit to believing in white supremacy is a smaller subsection of people who are willing to use violence to bring about white power. And that's the people that I'm writing about.
But now zoom all the way back out. And white supremacy is not just about belief. It's also about the array of systems, and histories, and social structures that continue to propagate racial inequality, even if nobody involved is individually a white supremacist. So here, we can look at something like, we have very disproportionate outcomes around, say, maternal and fetal health, or around incarceration, or around education, or around property ownership. The way that our systems are set up in the United States continue to propagate those problems, een if you have a whole jury and court system full of people who don't believe in white supremacy, we still have a problem with the systems. So what we're looking at in my book when we talk about the white power movement is really the most extreme part of the people who would be covered in that category of individual beliefs. So I'm really talking about Klansmen, neo-Nazis, some parts of the militia movement, skinheads, radical tax resisters, Posse Comitatus, and other groups that are really within this violence fringe.
KH: Can you give us a sense of the scale? How many people are we talking about?
KB: Yeah. This is always the trickiest part to talk about. So I study the period from the formation of this movement in the late 1970s through the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by the movement in 1995. In that period, if we look at the '80s before the militia turn, which I can talk more about, that makes it a little bigger. It helps to think about this in concentric circles, like a bullseye. In the middle, we have a number of very dedicated activists. This is only 25,000 people, but they live their whole lives in this movement. They go to church in the movement, they get their childcare in the movement. They homeschool their kids with curricular materials from the movement. They marry other activists. They pick each other up from the airport. The whole thing is in the movement. And then outside of that is a bigger circle of say 150,000 people. And here we have people who show up for marches, who donate money, who regularly read the newspapers or subscribe to movement publications and mail-in campaigns, but are less deeply involved. And outside of that is another 450,000 people. And those are people who don't donate money, but regularly read the movement literature. So they're involved in the ideological production and consumption of those movement ideas. Now that model of organizing is really effective for a fringe movement, because it does two important things. It pushes ideas from that radical bullseye out into the mainstream. And it pulls in people who can be radicalized toward the center of deepening and deepening activity. So what we're looking at is really a pretty small number of people. It's comparative in size to something like the John Birch Society, which we know much more about as historians. But it's a fringe movement. So one of the questions, both inside and outside of this group, is how did they think that they could accomplish what they set out to do, which was to overthrow the United States government? That's what they're still interested in doing and that's still what we see in the strategies that play on January 6th.
KH: Help us understand then how a movement with at your best assessment includes 25,000 to 30,000 hardcore adherents, can hope to achieve the overthrow of the U.S. government.
KB: So that question is why it is so important for us to continue to understand the ideology of this movement and how it worked. And for that, we need to look at a novel that came out in serial in the mid '70s, and has been floating around in this movement ever since.
KH: Can I jump in right here? Because I've always worried about this. You're going to mention a novel that I'm loath to buy. And I know people are going to hear its name and they're going to rush to educate themselves. Is there a way to talk about this diary, if you will, without elevating it?
KB: Yes. Please do not go buy this. It is widely pirated on the internet. You can get a PDF copy if you would like to look at this. I personally come down on the side of, people actually should read this. As long as you're reading it with context, I think it's good to know what it is. And the reason that I say that is over the long sweep of history, we have tried banning this book. We have tried muting this book. And what I see over and over again is people who are directly talking about this book, and no one notices because we're not conversant in the ideology of this movement. I think shining light and people knowing what this is might be a better tool. And we've never tried it. So I tend to think that it is better to understand it. Now I'm not saying go and read this book. It is, first of all, a deeply bad book. And also, it is not a pleasant thing to immerse yourself in. But I do think that knowing what's in it can help us to combat the problem.
So this book is called The Turner Diaries. Again, please don't buy it. Money from the purchase does still funnel back to this movement. So please get yourself a used or pirated copy if you would like to look at this. So The Turner Diaries presents a utopian vision of a white power future. So it's a dystopian novel if you're sitting outside of this movement. And it is presented in the style of many apocalyptic novels of the time, where it's presented as a set of journal entries by a fighter in this white revolution that is discovered from a future point where this has all now happened, and the movement has successfully overthrown the U.S. And it presents a profoundly violent vision of what the white power movement is trying to do and of how a fringe movement could possibly hope to overthrow the most militarized superstate in world history. And they do this through a series of asymmetrical guerrilla attacks and mass casualty attacks, provoking a civil war, and then eventually provoking a nuclear war between the U.S., Russia, and Israel that would allow them an opportunity to seize power in the nuclear aftermath. And then, the book’s afterword explains they have a genocidal campaign to clear the world of all nonwhite people through nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and to establish an all-white world. Now to be sure, this is not to the letter the literal belief of everyone in this movement by any stretch. But what it does, why it has been so important - and we know it was so important because it turns up all over the place in this movement. Members of the white power terrorist group The Order kept a stack of 15 of them in the bunk house. People in the White Patriot Party just passed them out at recruitment events. McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh the Oklahoma City bomber, sold this book on the gun show circuit. We know it was important because it keeps turning up, and because it answers this really big imaginative problem which in the novel is described as a gnat, the movement, trying to assassinate an elephant, the United States government. And I will say that this movement has remained in the present moment very important to these groups. There's video footage of Proud Boys telling journalists to go read The Turner Diaries as a way of describing what they're trying to do. And on January 6th, we saw activists erecting a gallows at the Capitol. Turner Diaries features something called the day of the rope, which is the hanging of a bunch of race traitors, including politicians. And it also features notably an attack on the U.S. Capitol that is not supposed to be a mass casualty event, but is supposed to be a show of force meant to awaken other people to join the movement. Which seems to be very much how these activists are trying to use the events of January 6th.
KH: Why is the involvement of military veterans so central to the movement?
KB: So military veterans are important to this movement in a whole bunch of different ways. One of them is a claim to credibility. There's a lot of sociological scholarship that shows us that many groups across the political spectrum, when they are trying to make a public facing claim - and by that, I just mean when they're trying to stage an action that's meant to bring in other people - they often use credible marchers to make that claim. So veterans is one way that they do this. There's a bunch of other ways that they do this. The other thing in this movement because it's paramilitary is that veterans are important for bringing actual skillsets. Weapons expertise, access to armories at posts and bases, running paramilitary camps, training other activists. Over time, veterans and active duty troops have been targeted for recruitment because they bring those skills.
KH: That's one area that I have a little trouble with. It's the overemphasis on the experience and skills that veterans bring to these movements. And I'll point to the coverage of the death of Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran killed at the Capitol, as case in point. The assumption is that, two tours, she's a hardened combat vet. Wouldn't you say that the typical veteran involved in this movement is not a combat vet, is not a special forces veteran? There are certainly outliers. But they don't always bring the tactical experience of Navy seals to this fight.
KB: Oh, absolutely. And I'll do you one better. A lot of the people in this movement who say they're vets aren't vets. We have a lot of people who are just dressing up in the uniform and undermining the experience that real veterans have had. And I can show you those people in the historical archive. Because as you may know, we don't yet have combat records released from the Vietnam War, so it's very difficult to verify the service details of people who were there. But we can verify things like here's somebody who says he was a decorated veteran, but I can show you that he was in prison during the years that he says he was overseas. So we know that there is a problem with the line between real experience and performativity through all of this. When we think about something like Ashli Babbitt's case though, for me, the more persuasive piece of information there - and I wouldn't put myself among the people that have argued she was a hardened veteran - but we do have footage of her on January 6th describing the people marching to the Capitol building as “boots on the ground”. So for me, there's also a way that the extension of wartime is at work here. It's not just about expertise. It's also about how people phrase the aftermath period and how the lines between wartime and peacetime have become blurred. And how the boundaries between homefront and battlefront have become blurred. So if you think about somebody like Louis Beam, who definitely was a veteran because he released his documents about this a long time ago. And we have a lot of corroborative evidence. And I can tell you a lot of details about his tours in Vietnam as a Huey helicopter door gunner, which actually was a place where he was experiencing quite a lot of both combat and possible combat trauma. I think there, we see that he's doing a number of things with his service experience. One of them is that he's leveraging a wartime story that is very compelling to a bunch of other people who served and who didn't serve. Another is that he's leveraging this paramilitary culture where people are able to access the aftermath of warfare in a recreational way almost through paramilitary training camps, and training programs, and things like that. And another is that he may or may not also be reliving the war for himself. And that one is very difficult to know, right? He says that he's diagnosed with PTSD, that what he's doing is about reliving the war. That what he's trying to do is bring the war home. His writing is where I get my book title. But whether he's actually doing that, or whether he's saying he's doing that because it's a good recruitment tactic, I think is a huge question mark.
KH: It's probably one we can never answer.
KH: I think your description of Ashli Babbitt's motivations actually get to the heart of it. And it's something that Dan Barkhuff brought up on this show a couple episodes ago. It's less about the skills and experiences than the mindset -
KB: Well, it's also about the skills and experiences. Because there is a very real component within the white power movement where the amount of damage that these groups can do is just exponentially higher when they do have paramilitary training. So sometimes, they're getting that training from people who were not in the forces. So The Order for instance, which is the terrorist group we were talking about a moment ago, had a ton of paramilitary training. But they actually got it from a guy who had sort of trained himself using Army manuals. So there, we have an example of someone who's not a veteran, but who had trained himself using Army materials in order to escalate violence among other people. But sometimes, we do have people like McVeigh, who - part of how he learned how to use explosives has directly to do with his own training. And we also have the problem of, some of these groups in the 1980s were obtaining stolen military weapons and explosives from the post at Fort Bragg, from the armory, simply by getting them through checkout procedures and then just not returning them. And there, we're talking about things like Claymore mines. It's hard to argue that without the access to those weapons, these guys would have had access to the same levels of technologies of killing. Some of them were making their own landmines, but they're never going to be able to make a landmine as good as a Claymore landmine.
KH: Sure. McVeigh also got the blueprints for the Oklahoma city bomb from The Turner Diaries.
KB: I think there's a difference between - so there's a guy from a group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord who also tried to blow up the Murrah Building in 1983. And they tried to do it several times. One of the times, I think they tried to use a surface to air missile mountain on a van. And it misfired and burned the guy's hand really badly. They ended up not going through with it because they couldn't figure out how to use the technology. McVeigh on the other hand, same target. But he knew how to do this a little better, in part because of his military experience, and he was able to succeed.
KH: I take your point. I just want to, I guess, restate that folks like Ashli Babbitt in their military service and thousands like them have adopted this idea that violence solves problems. And that is probably the most dangerous aspect of their service in translating that to domestic politics. This idea that because we've operated this way overseas for the last 20 years, violence solves political problems. We bring that home, and we shouldn't be surprised that some apply that in our own capital on January 6th.
KB: Yeah, I think that's right. And I also think that the way that the war has become invisible, I don't think that the war would even appear on the top five list of crises facing the country for a lot of people in the 2020 election. My undergraduates don't even remember a time when we were not at war. We've now passed the point where college students can remember 9/11 and the beginning of this chain of events. And I think that that is an incredibly damaging thing for our society, the way that we aren't recognizing and thinking about the experiences that people have while they're in the service.
KH: You brought up Timothy McVeigh, a veteran, who perpetrated the worst mass casualty incident between - what are your bookmarks on that? 9/11 on the backend -
KB: Between Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
KH: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. And you write about it - you're a historian, and you have written a history book, but I don't often go to my history books for poetry. But you have some pretty poetic passages in here and I want to read one of them back to you and get your reaction to it. Because it describes how the Oklahoma City attack changed our thinking. It did much more than destroy a building. You wrote, "The bombing destroyed an edifice, lives and families. But not only those, it also shattered meaning. Wiping out a public understanding of the white power movement by cementing its violence in public memory as the act of a few men." I mean, you're right about that. When you compare it to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, such different reactions to both.
KB: Yeah. And of course as a historian, I think immediately of, there's this amorphous thing we call public history. What do we carry around with us as the benchmarks of our shared story? Most people know what Pearl Harbor is, and most people know what 9/11 is, a lot of people from their personal experience. I think people are really confused about Oklahoma City, and it's because we haven't told the story very well about what it was and what it meant. I don't want to take up your whole podcast by recounting that full chapter of my book, I think that it is beyond question that McVeigh was part of the white power movement, that that building had been in the crosshairs of this movement since 1983. I mean, he lived with people who could draw that building from memory. And we have an extensive record of his social ties with this movement, which I show in the book is these social relationships between people create the glue that binds these groups together from which they can then launch these violent attacks. And I think the history is very persuasive that this is the work of a movement. And for me, it's been a very strange experience to have - this book was in copy edits when the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville in 2017. And since then, we've just had this sort of unbroken record of continuing white power activity. And we often get the story of lone wolves, or a few bad apples, or an isolated event, even as we can see this groundswell rising around us. And it's really a problem. Because if we think about, the shooting in Charleston was an anti-Black shooting. And the shooting in Pittsburgh was an anti-Semitic shooting. The shooting in El Paso was an anti-Latino shooting. And the one in Christchurch was an anti-Islamic act. But they all had white power gunmen who share not only those particular hatreds, but this web of social connection, and this long history, and these clear ideologies. And there's so much we can get from putting those stories together, not least that these communities in Pittsburgh, and Charleston, and Christchurch share the experience of having been attacked. But also that we are in a period of rising activity at every level and we see only these little snippets. Like you can read about January 6th and not even encounter stories about Atomwaffen and The Base. You can read about January 6th and not even think about the Tree of Life shooting. But this is all part of the same thing. And it will continue to be a problem within our society, unless there's really a change in how we look at it and how we face it.
KH: The emergence of this lone wolf archetype, it's really a misnomer. It's not an archetype. It's not just a function of insufficient journalistic interrogation or sloppy reporting. It's intentional on the part of the movement, right? This is a strategy that ascribes to this notion of leaderless resistance. Can you explain why it's intentional, why the lone wolf myth is part of their approach to insurgency?
KB: Yes, absolutely. So in 1983, this movement declared war on the federal government. This is the breaking point where this stopped being about just vigilante violence and this started being an attack on the United States. And it has been since 1983, very consistently. And to carry out this revolutionary project, they adopted two new strategies. One of them is leaderless resistance, which many people will recognize as simply cell-style terrorism. The idea is that one or a few activists would work towards a set of common goals, but without communication with other cells, and without communication directly with movement leadership. And they took this on actually because they were frustrated with the number of undercover informants who had infiltrated these groups during the civil rights era. They had been a big problem for the Klan particularly, and had created a lot of expensive problems. And then of course, it also was designed to make it more difficult to prosecute these people when they were arrested. But the bigger legacy and one that the movement realized was going to be a boon almost immediately is that when there were apprehensions of white power actors, they were usually treated as lone wolves or a few bad apples. And we got this record of just one or a few disaffected people or crazy people rather than a view of the movement as a whole. So what it really allowed was for the whole white power movement to disappear. And we see the movement itself talking about this and writing about this. Even the phrase “lone wolf” comes from the white power movement. And I don't want to be overly prescriptive about this. Surely, there are in our society acts of terror and violent actions that are really lone wolf actions. There are shootings that are not connected to a political ideology. There are all kinds of problems of mass violence in our society. But within the white power movement, this is all coordinated. This is part of a coordinated thing. And the other strategy that they adopted in 1983, I think gives us the other half of that story. And that is the adoption of the early internet to coordinate these groups in social network activism. This happened in 1983, '84. So they've really been doing social network activism and pioneering those strategies I mean for decades, if not generations.
KH: So you have established through your research, through I would imagine countless interviews, that this is an organized movement? The lone wolf thing is just a diversionary tactic. And yet - and I want to make sure I ask this in a sensitive way - the largest mass casualty event this movement was able to pull off was decades ago, with I believe 168 casualties. What is your assessment of their actual ability to bring to fruition their dreams as laid out in The Turner Diaries? Or is this just a fantastical mindset that has no chance of becoming reality?
KB: I see what you mean and I appreciate the care with the question. I think that there's two parts to that that I think are worth thinking through. One of them is about, can they really provoke a nuclear war, kill everyone except white people, and have an all-white planet? I find that fantastical, and I would imagine that many of them also find that fantastical. But there are a whole bunch of intermediary goals, including mass casualty attacks, that I think are well within their grasp. And I think that many damaging things can happen between here and a world genocide of people of color.
So one of the things I would note is that I am not a security studies expert by any stretch. But the Department of Homeland Security has now told us, and the FBI has now told us that this is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States that we are living with today. Larger than radical Islamic terror, and much, much, much larger than what some people refer to as Antifa or even Antifa and the violent left, which has at this point, I think has a fatality count of two, compared to several hundred on the right. Now, I take your point that if we're comparing to 9/11, or if we're comparing to Pearl Harbor, a casualty count of 168 is not a huge number of people. But there's two things that we have to keep in mind. One is that when we're thinking about terroristic violence, the number of people killed is only part of the story. And we might instructively think about a lynching as a counter example. When one person was lynched in a community throughout the long run of American history, the purpose was not just the killing of that one person. It's about implementing a regime of terror that quells life throughout an entire community. And an act like Oklahoma City is envisioned to cause terror throughout an entire country. Oklahoma City also was supposed to not stand for itself - the point of Oklahoma City for Timothy was not just to kill those people that day. The point was to 'awaken' other people to this cause and bring them into the movement. That's definitely how people have been thinking about January 6th. We saw an upsurge in accelerationist activity among Stop the Steal and MAGA websites. We see them reaching out trying to radicalize and recruit in the aftermath of events like that. So we have to think about the totality of how they're working and not just a single event. But I take your point that right now, they haven't done some of their more violent actions, like plots. They at one point had 400 pounds of cyanide they were going to use to poison the water supply of a city. That would have been several thousand people killed probably. And they were apprehended before they were able to do it. So hooray for the FBI in that case, I suppose. They have not been able to do things like sabotage nuclear power plants in order to create nuclear accidents that would harm a larger number of people. So instrumentally, I take your point that they have not created mass casualties on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.
KH: For the record, I raise it not as my point, but as an opportunity for you to illustrate the threat. Because I agree with you. And you didn't draw this thread explicitly, but I'm going to - the comparison of lynching, which was if not always state-sanctioned, than at least in many communities obliquely supported by the state, right?
KH: To the tacit support that the insurrectionists received and continue to receive from either state organs or influential politicians. And that I think is something different about the Oklahoma City bombing, and even more alarming. And I would posit that the nightmare scenario is not scattered 'lone wolf' actions, but the political cover slowly cloaking these movements with legitimacy and injecting their ideologies into the mainstream. I mean, the raised fist from Josh Hawley should send tremors down the spine of anybody who understands the history of lynching in these movements, and other signals like that should terrify us.
KB: I think that's absolutely right. I mean, I think there are multiple nightmare scenarios here. Like, I think one nightmare scenario is a sustained campaign of asymmetrical violence by a fringe movement against the American body politic over time. The other nightmare scenario is what happens if it becomes part of our mainstream politics. And I think the militia movement is one of the main points of concern in this regard, I think, because it's the place where these groups are claiming a cloak of legitimacy. And I think it's one of the places that people are the most, I guess, sympathetic. And I should just clarify that when I'm talking about militias on this podcast, I'm talking about extralegal militia activity. I'm not talking about guard units at the national or state level. But extralegal militia activity where private armies are created, trained, and then brought in to 'keep order' with the results being uniformly that they create terror and civilian casualties.
KH: Well Dr. Belew, this has been equal parts illuminating and terrifying. We end every episode with the same question though. What is the bravest decision that you've ever been a part of?
KB: The bravest decision?
KB: Wow. You know, I got into this project looking at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro in 2005 around one of the acts of racial violence involved in the book. And I have to say that simply showing up to tell your story and really doing the work of engaging the darkest moments of the past, I think that that decision is different for everybody. But I always find it incredibly moving when people are able to risk themselves in that way. I think if more of us did that, if more people were able to really take that on, I think that it could make such a huge difference.
KH: Well that is so fitting. Because we have I think a friend of yours as a guest on the show, Christian Picciolini, who embodies that.
KB: Yes. Thank you very much.
KH: Thanks again to Dr. Kathleen Belew for joining me. You can find her on Twitter at @kathleen_belew and you can learn more about her work at kathleenbelew.com. Her book is called Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Congressman Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger and representative for Colorado’s 6th congressional district. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, he has been hailed by his colleagues in Congress as “one of the heroes of that day,” for his actions guiding fellow members to safety.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
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