Before separating from the Army in 1991, Timothy McVeigh used to wear a T-shirt he got as part of a trial membership in the Ku Klux Klan. In his Army barracks, in full view of Black soldiers, McVeigh advertised his adherence to WHITE POWER. In his spare time, McVeigh frequented gun shows, where, in addition to amassing and selling weapons, he hawked copies of the seminal white terror-manifesto novel The Turner Diaries. The Army had regulations in place to ban “active participation” in terrorist groups like the KKK—its prohibitions on disorganized extremist activity were murkier—it just didn’t enforce them. On April 19, 1995, it became too late to stop McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran, from murdering 168 people, including 19 children, in the bloodiest act of terrorism on U.S. soil before 9/11.
The reckoning that occurred after Oklahoma City is instructive. Congress passed a major piece of counterterrorism legislation the following year, one that anticipated the 2001 PATRIOT Act. It expanded the powers of the FBI and federal prosecutors to surveil, investigate, and charge the terrorist infrastructure in the United States, especially the financial and other “material support” from sympathizers that fueled it. Only the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act granted those authorities to go after not white American terrorists like McVeigh but “international terrorists”—meaning, in practice, Muslim organizations and their supporters. The absurd but deadly serious deflection, pushed by Republicans nervous about a crackdown on their supporters and acquiesced to by Bill Clinton, was a statement about whose terrorism matters, and whose is too politically powerful to challenge.
White terrorism—or, if you prefer, Radical White Terror—is the oldest and most fundamentally American terrorism there is. Distinct amongst forms of political violence, it feeds from the same innocence narratives of the American Founding on display in textbooks and airport bookstores across the country. There is a reason why its practitioners call themselves patriots and adopt the iconography of the Founding generation. There is a memorial in Alabama to the lives and the freedom that Radical White Terror kept stealing long after the abolition of slavery.
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