THE TERRORIST NEXT DOOR

The Militia Movement

And the Radical Right

By Daniel Levitas

Thomas Dunne. 520 pp. $27.95

The militia movement is a weakened creature in the zoo of far-right extremists. Most of its leaders have been imprisoned on conspiracy and gun charges. What's left of it, a few hundred adherents in Kentucky or Ohio, appears insignificant compared with the threat from international terrorism.

Such assumptions are wrong, argues Daniel Levitas in The Terrorist Next Door, which sets out to be the definitive history of America's far-right militia movement. Levitas, an activist who has fought far-right extremism for years, has translated his passionate convictions into a well-documented and measured account. He argues that the movement that coalesced after Ruby Ridge and Waco is far more potent than commonly believed.

Levitas began research for his book shortly after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and completed it just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His research is meticulous and thorough, combining court records, FBI notes, interviews and a wide array of archival material. Still, his subject poses challenges that he only partially overcomes. The far right is composed of a confusing multiplicity of personalities, groups and movements. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are currently 676 ethnicity- or race-based hate groups in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League divides those groups into four broad movements -- the Ku Klux Klan, the sovereign citizen movement, the tax protest movement and the militia movement.

Of these, the youngest is the militia movement. It came together around the time the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver and a 14-year-old boy -- together with a federal marshal -- were killed in a 1992 FBI siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Militias continued to gain momentum after the prolonged standoff between well-armed Branch Davidians and federal authorities in Waco, Texas in 1993.

The militia groups that formed after Waco believed that the fire was set by agents of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. These new militias were pro-gun and anti-government, and practiced paramilitary training in rural areas.

Levitas is, rightly, particularly fascinated by the movement's precursor, the Posse Comitatus, founded in the early 1970s by Henry L. Beach, a neo-fascist, and William Potter Gale, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and self-proclaimed Christian Identity minister. The book opens with a cockamamie radio broadcast that Gale made in Kansas in 1982, in which he proclaimed: "You're either going to get back to the constitution of the United States in your government or officials are gonna hang by the neck."

The Latin words posse comitatus (power of the county) were first used in medieval England to describe the duty of able-bodied men to assist the sheriff of a county in apprehending miscreants. Gale distorted this common-law history and popularized the idea that men should form posses to combat tyrannical taxes, gun control and farm foreclosures. "Militia organizers defined themselves according to the language of patriotic constitutional vigilantism," Levitas writes. "Theirs was a lawful movement, grounded in centuries of divinely inspired jurisprudence; a defensive movement, to protect American values and ideals. . . . In reality, the militias were nothing of the sort. Most were patently illegal or tutored their followers in a litany of crime."

Gale is a fascinating figure. Levitas has discovered, for example, that Gale had a Jewish father, a fact he hid from his anti-Semitic followers. The threat posed by current militias has something to do with this charismatic belligerent, but not as much as Levitas stretches to argue. After Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the movement's numbers fell dramatically. McVeigh was not a militia member, though his anti-government sentiments were provoked by Waco, and they obviously tracked with militia philosophy. Because Levitas did not gain meaningful access to any of the movement's current members, there is no way to judge whether its remaining pockets are organizing or expanding.

The book's emphasis is misplaced; the history of the Posse Comitatus tends to overwhelm its offshoots. Moreover, it is al Qaeda, not the misguided ideological descendants of William Potter Gale, who pose the greatest terrorist threat. *

Lorraine Adams reviews frequently for Book World.