Shifting Images of Terror: The Road from Arlington Road

Shifting Images of Terror: The Road from Arlington Road September 2, 2019

This is the voice of historical memory speaking, through the channel of Professor Jenkins.

Last time, I described how views of terrorism have shifted over time, between internal enemies (usually domestic far Right) and external (Communists or Islamists). Such oscillations are dangerous when they involve a kind of blindness toward the kind of terror we decide to underplay or ignore. In the 1990s, the total focus on white supremacist and far Right terrorism led to a catastrophic official neglect of Islamist dangers, and that in turn resulted in 9/11. That precedent worries me very much as I contemplate present-day alarms about far Right terror exclusively, again to the neglect of external threats.

One critical problem here is amnesia. After such a paradigm shift, nobody bothers to recall what matters were like before, as the last panic slips into historical oblivion. To illustrate that, let me look at the last “far Right terror” panic, which ran from roughly 1995 through 2001, at which point we shifted wholesale and overnight to Islamist dangers.

Arlington Road

To illustrate that earlier era, just look at the high water mark of far Right/white supremacist villainy in popular culture. This occurred in the 1999 film Arlington Road, which tells how a terrorism expert comes to suspect that his too-perfect neighbors are in fact the masterminds of a massive conspiracy. The film culminates in the destruction of the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C., on lines very similar to the description in the neo-Nazi tract, The Turner Diaries. The film starred Jeff Bridges, fresh out of The Big Lebowski. (Arlington Road‘s scriptwriter went on to perpetrate the Transformers movies).

Arlington Road has impeccably liberal political credentials, in its depiction of a heroic Clinton-era government fighting monstrously evil anti-government forces, which are clearly a pressing danger to democracy. As the leading character states, growing numbers of Americans are joining a far-Right resistance: “How long are we going to call these numbers insignificant?” Despite this liberal bent, the film is strongly reminiscent of the highly conservative productions of the 1950s, the height of cold war paranoia, when Hollywood made a rash of conspiracy films warning of Communist subversion: most were so overblown that they are now regarded as camp classics.

Allowing for the change of ideology, Arlington Road fits exactly into this mode. The audience is told that subversives can be anywhere, and even your pleasant next door neighbors might turn out to be deadly enemies of national security. As in the McCarthy era, the subversives specialize in seducing the young, in this instance through a network of pseudo-boy scouts called the Discoverers. And then as now, only the FBI could protect us from these fearsome outsiders. As the film’s publicity warns, “Your paranoia is real!”

The hero misses one obvious clue to the white supremacist credentials of his neighbors, who listen to country music at their social events. How do you ignore something like that?

The Clinton-Era Militia Panic

Where was all this coming from? In the Clinton era, there was indeed an upsurge of militias, paramilitary groups dedicated to resisting what they saw as oppressive actions by the federal government Though estimates of numbers are uncertain, militias attracted at least tens of thousands of members and supporters, while related “Patriot” ideologies reached millions of others, using influential media outlets like talk radio. Although no militia was itself implicated in the attack, both government and mass media repeatedly used the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as a rhetorical weapon against the militia movement, suggesting that militia supporters and Patriots were terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Tim McVeigh was associated with various neo-Nazi groups, including the Phineas Priesthood, and likely the Aryan Republican Army, but only very tangentially with militias.

As I described last time, terror panics often involve “mapping together,” attacking ideological enemies by a totally unjustifiable association with lethal violence. In Salon, Gary Kamiya argued that “Timothy McVeigh would most likely have existed even if America’s mainstream conservatives did not preach a gospel disturbingly similar to his. … But while it would be unfair to blame right-wing ideology for McVeigh, it would be myopic not to see the connection between them. Call it collateral damage.”

News stories, editorials, and cartoons all presented the view of militias as crypto-Nazis, linked to white racist movements and far Right skinheads. An impressive outpouring of books – peaking in 1996 – warned of an imminent terrorist disaster from this “gathering storm.” Typical titles raised the shadow of America’s Militia Threat, of Terrorists Among Us, of The Birth of Paramilitary Terrorism in the Heartland. One book warned of the Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning. The same themes became obligatory in television series, where countless police and detective shows found themselves dealing with ultra-Right and white supremacist villains. The anti-militia campaign was effective, and most militia supporters withdrew from what they now saw as an extremist movement. By the end of the decade, the militias were largely defunct.

Ignoring al-Qaeda

To some degree, concern about far Right terror was reasonable and plausible. Tragically, it meant that it also involved the total neglect of external Islamist terror. By the end of the 1990s, the recently orthodox focus on Middle Eastern terrorism was all but discredited. The newer and ostensibly more sophisticated view stressed that external terrorism fears were grossly exaggerated, and were rooted in Islamophobia and racism. If the external dangers were so relatively slight, it made no sense to panic about them, or to worry too much about radical reforms of internal security. What had once been the liberal view now achieved orthodox status in mainstream and business publications: it was what sensible people believed. That mattered so much because it conditioned political attitudes and bureaucratic priorities.

In 1998, a Salon writer mocked charges that major terrorist organizations were plotting against the U.S.: “Bin Laden may be a dangerous anti-American zealot with a mouth as big as his bankroll. But the evidence so far does not support him being a cerebral Islamic Dr. No moving an army of terrorist troops on a vast world chessboard to checkmate the United States.” In June 2000, another Salon contributor opined “Why a new report on the threat of international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is a con job…. with roughly the veracity of the latest Robert Ludlum novel.” Liberals in the Clinton years often cited fiction authors like Ludlum and Ian Fleming, to suggest that accounts of international terrorist plots were the products of immature fantasies. In this view, too, charges about a continuing Islamist menace could be traced to retired CIA officers, old hard-liners opposed to the “reformers” now in charge of the agency: they were purely political, right-wing partisan attacks.

Wag the Dog

One film in particular had an inordinate impact on real world policy-making.This was Wag the Dog, (1998), a cynical satire about how a president threatened by a sex scandal saves himself by generating a bogus international crisis. The film depicts the fabrication of an international conflict through the machinations of the media, and as public interest declines, it is revived by new and entirely fictitious angles, such as the campaign to retrieve a U.S. soldier supposedly missing behind enemy lines. The media were thus shaping political reality, the tail was wagging the dog. The underlying theme of Wag the Dog became popular as a means of interpreting official responses to terrorism and other international threats. When in 1998 the U.S. struck against Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Sudan, the media response was overwhelmingly hostile. The popular impression was that the U.S. government had been misled by its obsession with evil Middle Eastern terrorists, and led astray by James Bond methods.

As to the U.S. motivation, many noted cynically that the president was facing a sex scandal quite as serious as that in Wag the Dog, so life was imitating art. A story in Salon reported that “It took only a few minutes for one of the reporters in the Pentagon press room to ask Secretary of Defense William Cohen the question on many minds: ‘Have you seen the movie?’ He was referring to Wag the Dog and the unsettling coincidence between Thursday’s military strikes and a movie in which political fixers concoct a war to distract public attention from a presidential sex scandal.” The story was sub-headed, “After Clinton called out the warplanes, Beltway skeptics said they’d already seen the movie.” In such commentary, the notion of any legitimate and necessary retaliation against terrorism was eclipsed. What had in the 1980s been the standard analysis of terrorism would in the Clinton years be viewed as the product of racism, xenophobia, militarism, and the cynical manipulation of naïve patriotism. Clever people knew better.

We’re All Safe At Home. Right?

The lack of concern in some of the articles and op-ed pieces written in this mode make curious reading following the events of September 2001. In 2000, an article in Business Week declared that “The U.S. – with our open society and huge borders – may seem vulnerable. Not so. It’s actually quite difficult for terrorists to enter the country through our well-patrolled airports …. Terrorism is horrible, but there’s little reason to lose sleep worrying you’ll be a victim — especially if you don’t leave the good old USA.” Uh huh.

In the New York Times, Larry C. Johnson stated his view that “Although high-profile incidents have fostered the perception that terrorism is becoming more lethal, the numbers say otherwise, and early signs suggest that the decade beginning in 2000 will continue the downward trend…. terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.” This was written in July 2001.

Do bear all this in mind if you seek to understand why US agencies made such a hash of anti-Qaeda investigations in the months leading up to 9/11. They knew that popular and political support for their activities was slim at best.

Or as I wrote last time, by all means, let’s combat far Right terror in the US. But let’s not go down that lunatic road – Arlington Road – that we trod in the late 1990s.



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