Look over your shoulder

Christopher Hitchens on the Oklahoma bombing and the Republican big tent

‘You can read about neo-Nazis all the time in the New York Times,’ said a sardonic acquaintance of mine the other day, ‘as long as they are in Germany.’ And indeed, the existence of an all-American underground composed of paranoid fascist mutants was until recently considered a fit topic only for those who are themselves labelled paranoid. When Costa-Gavras made a film on the subject about ten years ago (Betrayed, starring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger) he was laughed to scorn by the mainstream critics, who diagnosed a bad case of Euro-Marxist condescension towards the nightmare side of the American dream. There were no big funds available to law-enforcement agencies to track down the violent Right, as there would have been if the targets were Libyans or Cubans or (best of all) ‘drug king-pins’. Every now and then, the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League or Morris Dees’s heroic Klanwatch outfit would issue a report, warning of the weed-like growth of ostensibly anti-tax militias who also sold Mein Kampf and inveighed against Zog, their sinister acronym for what they term the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’. I must confess that I used to ignore some of these reports myself. One pamphlet, put out by the ‘Aryan Nations’, had run a ‘wanted’ list of mugshots, exposing the real powers behind Zog. My own name appeared next to that of Norman Podhoretz. Momentarily chilling as it was to feel ‘wanted’ by these people (let alone to be gazetted with Podhoretz), the overwhelming impression was of crankiness cut with impotent, pitiable hatred.

No longer. The Oklahoma detonation has exposed the militarisation of a wing of the American Right, and could perhaps permanently alter the locus of the national debate. It has also made 19 April into a date of cultish significance. It was on 19 April 1992 that a supremacist guerrilla named Randy Weaver saw his wife and child shot dead during a shootout with Federal agents in Idaho. On 19 April 1994, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco – a leftover from the Untouchables of the Prohibition era, and a state militia that cries out for scrapping – broke every rule in the book and ignited the compound of wigged-out millennialists in Waco, Texas. On 19 April this year, a real charmer named Richard Wayne Snell was led to execution in Arkansas. He had boasted of murdering a Jewish storekeeper and a black policeman. Leaflets had gone out across the South, warning of reprisal if he was executed by the Zoggists. As Snell was being readied for the lethal injection, he snarled: ‘Look over your shoulder. Justice is coming.’ And then hours later the centre of bureaucratic Oklahoma, complete with subsidised day-care centre, tax records, criminal case evidence and the rest of it, vehicle registration and all, slid into the street with a tremendous roar. 19 April is also, in Massachusetts, a state holiday known as Lexington Day. It commemorates the militiamen of the American Revolution who ‘fired the shot heard round the world’.

There is a feeble insurgent pulse that beats at the heart of the bucolic fascist movement, and it is the same pulse that animated Daniel Shays, the Whisky Rebellion and some of the early populist movements. A man can’t brew his own booze no more, can’t hunt when he wants, can’t build an outhouse on his own land without filling forms into next week, can’t educate his children with the Good Book in one hand and a strap in the other. A man needs a permit to get married, to set a trap for a wild animal, to own a gun which the Constitution says he has a right to. He has to pay taxes and answer questions about his income, just so the shiftless can get their welfare checks. It’s a constant whine, like the endless bleating of white Rhodesian peasants reported by Doris Lessing and called by her ‘the conversation’. The country is going to the dawgs/to hell on a sled/to hell in a handcart. The pointy-heads and the desk-job white-collar drones are responsible. At different pitches and with different timbres, this refrain has been part of the Joe McCarthy movement, the George Wallace campaign and every Republican surge from Nixon to Gingrich. (But let’s not be too partisan about it; the rhetoric evolved from the days when the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern Democratic Party were each other’s official and provisional wings.) As Richard Hofstadter, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Theodor Adorno, in The Authoritarian Personality, have both taught us, this kind of American ‘populism’ has always been tainted by its kinship with racism and superstition, and by its servility to the very power it ostensibly rails against. It leads to Huey Long and Ross Perot, not to Walden.

This makes it very hard to guess how many people, on learning of the Oklahoma explosion, made a little holiday in their hearts. The question was, in any case, overtaken at once by the appalling images of death and mutilation, and by the competition to be first in the spin-control stakes. But if the Internal Revenue Service computer had been blown up with no loss of life, or if the same had happened to the Untouchables or the Interior Department, there would have been an audible growl of satisfaction. The Nazi David Duke, it doesn’t pay to forget, got a clear majority of the white vote in the gubernatorial race in Louisiana. And several of the new conservative intake of the Senate and House have made either electoral or political pacts with members of the militia movement.

Bill Clinton’s approval rating has climbed several points since his own intervention in this argument, and since I live in a city where the approval rating is god I feel almost profane in saying that I think he made a big mistake. Two big mistakes, actually. In his first set of remarks, he associated the bombing with the incendiary rhetoric of his tormentors on the talk-radio circuit; the ones who won’t let up on him and his wife and who insinuate that he murdered Vince Foster. Now, it is true that people like Rush Limbaugh and Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, the soldiers of fortune of the airwaves, have made observations that flirt with incitement. Limbaugh recently predicted a second and ‘violent’ American revolution in approving tones, and Liddy actually recommended the shooting of Federal agents if they came at you with guns. You would get the idea, listening to these jerks, that the United States was already (as Evelyn Waugh said about Britain under Labour in 1945) ‘an occupied country’. But the gun-freaks and white supremo types have been organising, and using deadly force, for longer than the right-wing bigmouths have had corporate sponsorship of the air. In June 1984, in fact, they murdered Alan Berg, an anti-fascist talk-show jockey in Colorado, who had taunted the Nazis on his own programme. It was the investigation of that slaying, which uncovered a ramified movement of well-armed Aryan bullies all across the Western states, that first alerted the FBI to a problem it has failed to keep in its sights – blind as they are in the right eye. (An excellent book on the phenomenon also resulted from the Berg case: Armed and Dangerous by James Coates.)

So, as well as being ahistorical in suggesting guilt by association, Clinton gave the conservative demagogues an excuse to change the subject. They began to talk in injured tones about American traditions of free speech and the First Amendment. And certainly, in his few known utterances, the gaunt and ghoulish-looking Mr McVeigh has not spoken of hearing voices from the ether. He has droned obscurely about animal rights, the purity of hunting and the wide open spaces. Indeed he does resemble, as William Burroughs once wrote of his own visage, ‘one of them sheep-killing dogs’. He and his kind hate the cities and the city-dwellers, especially those cities that have become sinks of immigration and race-mixing and alien religions.

Clinton’s second mistaken emphasis was the equally predictable one of law and order. He proposed greatly increased powers of search and seizure, even though FBI Director Louis Freeh testified publicly that the Bureau doesn’t need them, and then he and his useless Attorney General, Janet Reno, both rushed to say that the culprits, whoever they might be, would and should be executed. For some reason – perhaps for a good one – Democrats always sound unconvincing when they make jaw-jutting remarks about ‘toughness on crime’. Furthermore, they invariably come second in the auction of toughness that follows. Here again was a change of subject from which the Right could only benefit.

Newt Gingrich is leading a charmed life at the moment. Two of his newly elected ‘Republican Revolution’ colleagues, Helen Chenoweth of Iowa and Steve Stockman of Texas, have proud and open ties to the militia movement and have parroted its propaganda about the sinister New World Order. Two Republican Senators, Larry Craig of Idaho and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, have also shown a willingness to express the same ‘concerns’ as the Ultra-Right. Moreover, the largest single organised faction in the Republican Party today is the so-called Christian Coalition led by Pat Robertson. The key text of this movement, Robertson’s own tract on the New World Order, can be demonstrated to be a line-by-line plagiarism from classic European anti-semitism. In Robertson’s world view, it is the Warburg and Rothschild families, the Freemasons and the Illuminati, all over again. Yet nobody ever calls Gingrich on it; ever asks him, on the record, if these characters and these ideas are really part of the ‘big tent’ that is said to enclose Republicanism. A couple of cosmetic shifts have been made in the past few days. Senator Alfonse d’Amato of New York, a man best known for his free and easy business dealings and his unfunny racist imitations of Judge Lance Ito, incredibly broadcast live on a radio talk-show, has backed out of an evening intended to honour Gordon Liddy. But in general, that convicted Watergate criminal (who once expressed a willingness to kill people in the great cause of saving Richard Nixon’s face) is still a darling of the ‘movement’, as is the Iran-Contra criminal, Oliver North. Pensioners of the state and servants of power that they are, the pair make a weird sort of advertisement for the rugged frontier values they so hoarsely proclaim.

So the moment is slipping by in which political lessons are likely to be learned from the Oklahoma atrocity. Those who used the first days to call for the bombing of any old Ay-rab country have survived the embarrassment intact. (Rush Limbaugh said we should bomb the Middle East, starting with Gaddafi, ‘even if we don’t know exactly who did it’.) There have been no calls for ‘surgical strikes’ against the training camps in Idaho and Montana. Caliban doesn’t like looking in the glass. Meanwhile, the attempt to give Federal bureaucrats and their families a human face, as victims and survivors instead of anonymous pen-pushers, is insipid almost to the point of masochism. If the best the Democrats can do is to ask people to be grateful for all that the state does for them, then they will repeat exactly the condescending errors that cost them the Congress last fall and may lose them the White House next year.

So the language of therapy and recovery is kicking in, if anything so bland and superficial can be said to have any kick at all. The words ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ are never employed – perhaps from some exaggerated anxiety about political correctness – so the terms ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘anti-racist’ are likewise muted. Instead, we have trauma-management seminars, and the rebarbative spectacle of the Clintons at the White House, pictured with a flock of tots, and speaking earnestly about how children shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. I can picture a few wolfish smiles among the perpetrators at this response; not a bad return of respect and fear for the investment of one fertiliser bomb device. Tom Metzger of the ‘White Aryan Resistance’ went on radio to say that in any case, this being a war and all, there would be casualties. And if the Federal bureaucracy insisted on putting creches in their buildings, what did they expect? No mincing of words there. I once spent some quality time debating Mr Metzger on television, in the days when people to the left of centre could still get on screen. He wasted a lot of his airtime explaining why Jews weren’t white, and boasting of how his group had kicked to death an Ethiopian visitor to Seattle.

An especially irritating trope, invariably offered at times like this, is the stress on the ‘loss of American innocence’. I have at different times heard that this ‘innocence’ was lost in 1898, in 1917, in 1929, in 1945, in Vietnam, in Dealey Plaza and (Robert Redford’s most recent offering) at the time of the Quiz Show Scandals in the late Fifties. How desirable is innocence as a condition anyway? And how come it is so easy to regain, only to be ‘lost’ once more? How one yearns for just one moment that is not clotted with euphemism and sentimentality; one moment when someone in public life would call for a fight-back, and give these ostensibly ‘libertarian’ movements their right name.

For some grotesque reason, it’s been Yeats week in the Oval office. To close his solemn speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on 29 April, Clinton quoted Auden’s valediction to the poet: ‘In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountains start.’ The mere word ‘healing’, presumably discovered in a computer keyword search, had evidently been enough to recommend this otherwise completely inapposite verse. Then I got a call. ‘Hi. George Stephanopoulos thought you would know where that line about “the centre cannot hold” comes from ...’ As a result, I had the vaguely surreal experience of calling the White House and, George being absent, of reciting the first verse of ‘The Second Coming’ over the telephone. The secretary’s computer clacked oddly as I spelled and explained ‘gyre’, and picked up a bit more speed when we got to ‘things fall apart.’ The repetition of ‘loosed’ after ‘blood-dimmed tide’ gave some difficulty, and then with a sinking feeling I heard my own voice saying: ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’ If they pick that bit for the next speech, I realised, it’ll be partly my fault. So I gave especial stress to the closing staves about how the best lack all conviction, while the worst ... ‘Will he know what this is about?’ she inquired as if deploying all-American politeness on a slightly questionable but nonetheless registered voter. ‘Yes he will. It’s a poem he asked for.’ ‘A poem? Did you write it?’

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last ...