June 7, 2002
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
We Americans have conjured so specific a vision of terrorists swarthy, glowering Muslims mumbling fanatically about Allah that we're missing the threat from home-grown nuts, people like David Burgert.
Mr. Burgert, a 38-year-old who last made a living renting out snowmobiles here in this spectacularly beautiful nook of northwestern Montana, had a terror plan that made Osama bin Laden's look rinky-dink. Not content merely to kill a few thousand people, Mr. Burgert's nine-member militia was planning a violent revolution and civil war to overthrow the entire United States government.
The plan, according to Sheriff James Dupont, was for the militia to use its machine guns, pipe bombs and 30,000 rounds of ammunition to assassinate 26 local officials (including Mr. Dupont), and then wipe out the National Guard when it arrived. After the panicked authorities sent in NATO troops, true American patriots would rise up, a ferocious war would ensue, and the U.S. would end up back in the hands of white Christians.
"The good thing is that most of the people who would do it are so stupid that they would kill themselves first," said Sheriff Dupont, who runs the law here in rugged Flathead County, which is bigger than all of Connecticut and has lots more grizzly bears.
But the litany of domestic militia plots, failed ones, is still sobering. In Michigan, militia members planned to bomb two federal buildings. Missourians planned to attack American military bases, starting with Fort Hood, Tex., on a day it opened to tens of thousands of visitors. California militia members planned to blow up a propane storage facility. Most unnerving, a Florida militia plotted to destroy a nuclear power plant.
If these were Muslims who were forming militias and exchanging tips for making nerve gas, then we'd toss them in prison in an instant. But we're distracted by our own stereotypes, searching for Muslim terrorists in the Philippine jungle and the Detroit suburbs and forgetting that there are blond, blue-eyed mad bombers as well. We're making precisely the mistake that the Saudis did a few years ago: dismissing familiar violent fanatics as kooks.
In fact, militia members and Al Qaeda members are remarkably similar. Both are galvanized by religious extremism (America's militias overlap with the Christian Identity movement, which preaches that Jews are the children of Satan and that people of color are sub-human), both see the United States government as utterly evil, and both are empowered by the information revolution that enables them to create networks, recruit disciples and trade recipes for bio- and chemical weapons.
It would be a mistake to put one's faith in the militias' eternal incompetence. Jessica Stern of Harvard has written about an anti-government activist named James Dalton Bell, who earned a degree in chemistry from M.I.T. and is unquestionably brilliant. By age 14, he says, "I was studying the isomerization of benzyl thiocyanate to the isocyanate."
Weren't we all? But Mr. Bell, who is now in jail, is also believed by the authorities to have manufactured sarin, a nerve gas, in his basement. He led a chemical attack against an I.R.S. office and wrote an Internet book called "Assassination Politics," which outlines a very clever scheme to pay for contract killings of federal officials with digital cash in a way that preserves anonymity at both ends. There is also evidence that Mr. Bell talked "hypothetically" of poisoning a city's water supply.
The things you learn in Montana: According to militia members here, the World Trade Center attacks were a plot by the Feds to declare an emergency and abolish the Bill of Rights; the Columbine school shootings were a federal test of new mind-control technology; a map on a Kix cereal box shows the occupation zones Americans will be herded into after the United Nations takes over.
Another thing you learn here is how to deal with grizzlies. Don't be so focused on a distant moose that you ignore the bear behind you. And if it charges, stand your ground until it's 10 feet away, then shoot pepper spray into its eyes, and very quickly step aside.
Right now, I'm afraid that the Bush administration is so focused on the distant moose that we're oblivious to the local grizzlies like Dave Burgert creeping up on us.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company