June 18, 1984 — A Murder in Denver
The first act of terrorism that I remember as an American boy growing up in an all-white suburb of Denver was the murder of Alan Berg. On June 18, 1984, someone gunned Berg down outside his north Denver home using a silenced Mac-10 machine gun. After pulling into his own driveway just after 9:30 at night, another car pulled in behind him, then someone jumped out and shot him a dozen times at close range. Berg was dead before his body hit the ground. This was an assassination. And the killers had gotten away. I was only 12 and I was terrorized.
Berg was a local loudmouth who seemed on the verge of becoming a bona-fide national celebrity. “A reformed alcoholic and lapsed trial lawyer,” Berg once defended Lenny Bruce before becoming a leading voice in the new talk radio. He used to yell into the mic, mocking Christians, health nuts and gun nuts, while goading the white racists who were always calling in. The anti-Semites made sure we all knew that Berg was Jewish, as if this somehow explained everything. Now Berg was Jewish in the same sort of way that I was, meaning not at all. We both had Jewish last names and at least one Jewish grandparent.
In 1984 I didn’t understand any of this, I was just a kid in grade school. My mother worked as a substitute teacher and my father was a middle school principal. We lived in suburbia where everyone drives everywhere and we listened to AM radio in the family Volkswagen.
Before this I remembered the time in second grade when they came on the school intercom to announce that someone shot President Reagan in Washington DC. That was March 30, 1981 and the shooter — John Hinkley Jr. — lived in Colorado too. He was from Evergreen, up in the mountains. Reagan had been President for three months and he survived. My folks did not like Reagan at all. Not that they wanted him dead, mind you, they were good middle class liberals. This was when my parents first told me the story of how someone killed president Kennedy back when they students. All that felt very far away. But the talk show host’s voice in the family car made his death feel closer.
Less than a year before his murder, Berg told 60 Minutes: “Hopefully my legal training will prevent me from saying the one thing that will kill me, and I’ve come awfully close.” Sometime in the days between that interview and June 18, 1984, Alan Berg must’ve said that one thing.
Berg’s murder was the first time in my rather dull personal biography that I encountered what I thought were the great and exciting events of history. I knew that this killing was something I was supposed to remember. And I did. I have. In part because it marks my first explicit encounter with whiteness. In the story of the Berg killing I first heard whiteness dare speak its own name. And in the sequence of days over which this story unfolds, I learned something valuable from a Neo-Nazi conspiracy about what it means to be white. And now I have more than memory. I have a full history — and a literature too — in which all my terrorists are white.
December 18, 1984 — The Order
For exactly six months no one knew anything about who shot Berg and why. No one claimed responsibility. Just silence. And then, this:
All at once, the full story of Berg’s killing assembled itself before our very eyes in the newspapers. The Feds were arresting all the surviving members of a Neo-Nazi group that called itself The Order. Ten days before the authorities declared the Berg case solved, the FBI found the charred remains of Robert Jay Mathews, founder of The Order. Mathews was a prophet and a terrorist, a true believer in the coming Racial Holy War (RaHoWa) against the “Zionist Occupation Government” (ZOG) that ruled America.
Sometime between the Berg murder and their July 19 armed robbery of $3.6 million dollars from an armored car near Ukiah, California, the FBI picked up their trail. On October 18th the FBI raided the Idaho armory where they found the .45 caliber silenced Mac-10 used to hit Berg. Two months later, acting on an informant’s tip, nearly 150 FBI agents raided Mathews’ safe house on Whidbey Island outside of Seattle. Mathews refused to surrender, and after a thirty hour standoff, the Feds shot flares into his cabin which caught fire, a fire wherein Mathews burned alive. Mathews became the first in a list of radical right self-immolating martyrs, a list that eventually included David Koresh and some seventy-five other members of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993. This date will become important later.
Justice is often strange, and never more so than in a conspiracy trial. The Feds indicted four members of The Order for killing Berg, two were convicted, neither for murder. It is still unsettling to hear a racist murder described as a “conspiracy to violate civil rights.” But what this told me was that Berg’s murder was not a random crime. It was about race. Nor was this the work of some “lone-nut” like Hinkley or the guy my parents said killed Kennedy. Rather, this killing was proof of a conspiracy of white terrorists who stalked the west.
The fiery destruction of The Order helped set off America’s fascination with the militia movement and the Neo-type Nazi. J. Anthony Lucas wrote a profile of the case, Eric Bogosian wrote a play, Oliver Stone directed the movie.
The personal is political and sometime the political is also personal. This story made a lasting impression on my adolescent political imagination. Berg became famous as the “man who talked himself to death,” and his death taught me something about freedom of speech and the threats against those who do speak freely. It also established a connection between spectacular forms of whiteness and terrorist violence.
I definitely knew that the Nazis were evil. I had a young historian’s fascination with World War II and a big photo history book of the war with black and white pictures from Buchenwald. Besides, I’d seen Raiders of the Lost Ark five times, and that low talking, glasses wearing Nazi in the black leather overcoat whose face melts at the end in the presence of the avenging Hebrew god, that was just about the worst bad guy I could imagine.
But these Neo guys were Americans. Criminals who fled the police and died in grubby mountain-top shacks. They flew the same symbols as Hitler and talked about “Aryans” and “the Jews” in the same ways. Yet in the distance between the Nazi and the Neo it was hard to mistake the measure of their current political marginalization. The Neos were “extremists” and “radicals,” expelled from middle class society to the deserts, mountain tops and prisons. But just as importantly, this killing, these killings, revealed the stubborn survival of Nazism in my own time, in my own home town.
The whiteness that surrounded me growing up in Colorado was all but invisible, it was so ordinary that nobody seemed to notice let alone ever want to talk about it. Prior to the killing of Alan Berg, I had never heard anyone talk about whiteness before. But these guys from The Order spoke openly of an aggrieved whiteness with the same conspiratorial breath they used to threaten and kill. I was repulsed by this violent whiteness and so too, suspiciously enough, were all the other good white people around me. It made me wonder which white people The Order was fighting for. What was whiteness anyways, was it about skin color and blood, was it about politics and power? Did the ordinary whiteness that I found on my own flesh somehow bind me to this far more spectacular kind of whiteness?
It was a strange sensation, to realize for the first time that I was white and surrounded by whiteness, only after a pack of Neo-Nazis murdered a local Jewish celebrity. Suddenly faced with the threat of “White Power” I asked myself is this what it means to be white?
September 16, 1991 — The Turner Diaries
Though he was not the triggerman, Bob Mathews was certainly present the night of Berg’s murder. Born in 1953 in Marfa, Texas, Mathews was the son of a USAF officer who took up with the paramilitary set instead. During his time in the woods, Mathews began corresponding with Dr. William Luther Pierce, author and founder of The National Alliance. Mathews had read Pierce’s novel, The Turner Diaries, and this book changed his life, as it would for two generations of white terrorists. “In there is what the future will be,” Mathews told a new recruit to the National Alliance, handing him a copy of The Turner Diaries, “You must read it…. You must.”
Is it possible that a novel killed the radio star?
There are few works of American popular literature more notorious than The Turner Diaries. Written under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald, The Turner Diaries first appeared in serialized form in Dr. Pierce’s magazine Attack! Published as a novel in 1978, The Turner Diaries sold some 185,000 copies without ever appearing in bookstores, distributed through a rightwing counter-culture of gun shows, mercenary magazines and newsletters. Even today, Turner’s fans are legion.
The text arrives as a narrative account of the not-too-distant-future, framed as a historical artifact from an all-white utopia. A preface explains that this is the recovered diary of one Earl Turner, a “rank-and-file member” of the Organization who gave his life during the first two years of “the Great Revolution.” The novel offers a potent mix of how-to conspiratorial detail, action adventure plot, a few badly written sex scenes, along side pages of explicit commentary on race and politics, all cloaked in the speculative destiny of racial triumph.
“September 16, 1991. Today it finally began! After all these years of talking — and nothing but talking — we have finally taken our first action. We are at war with the System, and it is no longer a war of words.” Turner’s war begins with government raids on the homes of Americans who refused to surrender their guns after the passage of “the Cohen Act.” (Yes, I take this personally). Turner then goes underground with a small military unit. Under orders from “Revolutionary Command,” Turner and his cell build a fertilizer and fuel oil bomb which they pack into a stolen box truck and drive into the loading dock of the FBI building in Washington DC.
“The scene in the courtyard was one of utter devastation…” recalls Turner, who is unable to resist the pyromaniac’s temptation to return to the fire and gawk at the damage when he probably should be fleeing the scene.
The strike on the FBI wins Turner a promotion into the conspiratorial inner circle of the Organization. Having “passed the test of the Word and the test of the Deed,” Earl is instructed in the ways of the Cause by the bearers of the Faith, taught the Sign and administered the Oath wherein all the new recruits are given a gold plated cyanide capsule as new members of the Order. (The Text seems determined to weaponize Nouns through random Capitalization.)
At this point, the stiff action-adventure story shifts into full blown Mein Kampf level delusions of grandeur. The Organization’s “summer offensive” on Los Angeles begins with a Tet Offensive style guerrilla raid on LA’s infrastructure, which suddenly escalates into a successful implementation of the Nazi’s plans for the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe. Blacks in LA are first ghettoized like Polish Jews. Then, working like a little Eichmann, Turner energetically organizes the “evacuations of the Blacks and mestizos and ‘boat people’ from Southern California.” In mere days, all the people of color in LA simply are marched eastward into a desert oblivion “at a rate of better than a million a day,” in what Turner calls a new form of “demographic war.”
After ridding themselves of anyone darker than a paper bag, the Organization turns against the “race traitors” in one epic mass lynching known as “The Day of the Rope.” “From tens of thousands of lampposts, power poles and trees” some sixty thousand white people, “System toadies, Jew-fawners, equalitarian theorists and other White-race criminals” — including the UCLA faculty — are all lynched. A “mongrelized” LA basin is liberated and purified as a vision of Lebensraum with “clean, happy, enthusiastic White faces, determined and hopeful for the future!”
By now you may be asking yourself, why did Earl Turner need a revolution to achieve this white utopia when he could just move to Littleton, Boulder, Evergreen or South Park, the beautiful all-white utopias of Colorado? The reason is that Turner doesn’t think about race in sociological terms, it is not enough for him to be in the majority or live in the suburbs like I did. Ordinary whiteness was not good enough, his whiteness needed to speak its own name.
For Turner, race is a biological theory of history, an epic struggle in which different races have competing destinies that are written in the blood. Purification of white bloodlines through selective breeding and racial violence offered the singular path to spiritual restoration and human perfection. Multiculturalism and race mixing were therefore not just a political challenge to whiteness but a biological threat to the species. As teachers of biological racism, Turner argued that the secular humanist belief that race is a political construct was all part of a Jewish intellectual conspiracy to disarm whites, leaving them sidelined by guilt, afraid to be called “racists,” unable and unwilling to defend the best interests of their race. What Turner dramatized was the need for whites to organize, to regain their racial consciousness and fight for their people, lest they be dragged down into the brown, black and yellow racial mud.
Driven by this apocalyptic vision The Turner Diaries ends in fire. Using nuclear weapons captured from Vandenberg AFB, the Order starts a “nuclear civil war” by launching its missiles against New York, Tel Aviv and the Soviet Union. In a one paragraph Final Solution, the novel kills 60 million people, including the sacrifice of millions of their White “racial kinsmen.”
Earl Turner’s destiny arrives when he volunteers to fly a crop duster armed with a nuclear warhead into the Pentagon. “What I will do today,” writes Turner in his final entry, “will be of more weight in the annals of the race than all the conquests of Caesar and Napoleon — if I succeed!” Not bad for an ordinary white man, right? The fictional future editor informs us that his mission was a success and that Turner’s 9/11-style suicide bombing is memorialized in the future as the “traditional Day of the Martyrs.”
Literally hundreds of Americans have died at the hands of white men attempting to re-enact the opening chapters of this crap novel. Bob Mathews believed it was a prophecy that he could set in motion by killing Alan Berg. Timothy McVeigh sought to re-enact the FBI bombing scene nearly word for word. John William King told the police after lynching James Byrd in 1998 in Jasper, Texas that, “We are starting the Turner Diaries early.” And so on.
The violent influence of this book marks it as the cultural center of late 20th century white supremacy, making a lie of the story that white terrorism (euphemized in the press as “domestic terrorism”) is simply the work of lone gunmen when they are in fact links in a chain, elements in a conspiracy of white terrorists that continues to this day.
September 11, 1933 — Dr. Pierce
The author of The Turner Diaries, Dr. William Luther Pierce, was born on September 11, 1933 in Atlanta, the same year Hitler took power in Germany. Pierce’s ancestors counted among the Confederate ruling elite. As a young man, he excelled in school and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Colorado. CU Boulder is a very very white school. I know because my brother and I both went there, my uncle got two degrees from there and my parents met as college students at CU.
In 1962, just as my folks entered college, Dr. Pierce left Colorado for a job as an Assistant Professor in Oregon. There he joined the John Birch Society (post-war American Fascism’s gateway drug). Ill suited to academic life, Pierce took a job in New Haven at the defense contractor Pratt & Whitney. A year later, Pierce joined John Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party.
Rockwell sported a chiseled jaw, General MacArthur’s corncob pipe and Joseph Goebbels brown shirt while hysterically shouting “White Power” at Civil Rights marchers. This overblown bigot’s 15-minutes of fame ended in 1967 when an underling gunned him down in one of the era’s least tragic assassinations. White on white crime is real.
Needing a new messiah, Dr. Pierce decided to become his own, founding The National Alliance in 1974. Dr. Pierce built his organization atop a West Virginia mountain, where he spent years editing newsletters and producing radio shows before The Turner Diaries brought him real success.
You may be asking yourself: why would a white supremacist write a novel? As Dr. Pierce told his autobiographer: “If the protagonist learns something or comes to believe in something, if he changes his ideas, the readers tend to do the same thing. He changes too. So what you have is a powerful teaching tool, a persuasive tool.” In other words, narrative is ideology and ideology is narrative. Story telling is more effective than speech making.
In the following years, Dr. Pierce wrote a second racist thriller, Hunter (1989), about a “lone-wolf” assassin who kills interracial couples and anonymously inspires a mass uprising of independent lone gunmen. He even tried his hand at writing a white supremacist Archie comic book.
In the fall of 1983, Dr. Pierce invited Bob Mathews to give a talk at the National Alliance’s convention. Mathews described his recruitment efforts among farmers (“the Aryan Yeomanry”) and independent truckers in Washington State. The speech ends with a rousing call for a “vanguard” of “aryan masculinity” to “stand up like men” in “defense of our race.” Weeks later Bob formed the Order, and within a year they had killed Berg, or what he called “the electronic Jew.”
“He may have been a bit premature,” eulogized Dr. Pierce, “and he may have made many tactical errors… but he elevated our conflict… he took us from name calling to bloodletting.” “Bob succeeded in killing only one Jew,” lamented Dr. Pierce, “an especially abrasive and obnoxious talk show host.” Nevertheless, “Bob… did what was morally right,” he recognized that it was “time for us to begin killing the people who are killing our race.”
Like Alan Berg, I tend to be something of a First Amendment Fundamentalist. Free speech is about the rights of people to express ideas that you totally disagree with, right? But how does this kind of language not rise to the level of “shouting fire in a crowded theater?” A century ago, Emma Goldman faced prison for way less. Sure the FBI watched Dr. Pierce, but they never called in the Navy SEALS to raid the National Alliance. Dr. Pierce and his people were well armed, they hated the government, and their movement looked to make martyrs through individual acts of resistance. So, in the early 1990s, the government left the National Alliance alone. Maybe because the feds were scared of another Waco or Ruby Ridge, or maybe they figured that Dr. Pierce was too marginalized to do any harm?
These questions matter because the worst was still to come. As it turns out, Pierce’s most enthusiastic reader was not Bob Mathews. It was Timothy McVeigh.
April 19, 1995 — Oklahoma City
I didn’t buy a copy of The Turner Diaries until it was reprinted after the Oklahoma City bombing. The copy I bought (Barricade Books, 1996) has a prophylactic cover announcing: “THIS BOOK CONTAINS RACIST PROPAGANDA.” Not often do you buy a book that shouts: Hey, don’t read me. But before I got my hands on a printed copy, I read the book on a white supremacist website shortly after April 19, 1995.
Just after 9am that morning a young Army veteran from the first Gulf War drove a rented Ryder truck packed with nearly five thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil explosives up to the front entrance of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, parked the truck, lit the fuse and hustled away. Moments later, the truck exploded with a force that registered on distant seismographs. The bomb blew the lower front of the building apart, causing the entire facade to collapse into the eight foot deep crater it left in the street. 168 people died and more than 600 were injured in what is still the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history.
According to Dr. Pierce’s biographer, McVeigh tried to call his favorite writer in the weeks before the bombing, though Dr. Pierce went to his grave in 2002 denying any contact with McVeigh. When Oklahoma highway patrol stopped McVeigh about 90 minutes after the explosion, driving north in a car with no license plates, he had with him the single page from The Turner Diaries detailing the bombing of the FBI. At his trial in the Federal Courthouse in Denver, the first exhibit entered into evidence was McVeigh’s copy of The Turner Diaries. It contained everything needed to prove his literary premeditation.
McVeigh first read The Turner Diaries when he was in the Army after ordering a copy from an ad in the back pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. After the army, McVeigh bought boxes of the book to sell at gun shows until he decided to stop reading it as genre fiction and start treating it like a how-to manual. Save only the example of Birth of A Nation (1915), nowhere else in the history of American crime or culture, do we find such a clear case of life violently imitating art, of fiction encouraging obsessive acts of re-enactment, as we find in the Oklahoma City bombing.
McVeigh’s primary accomplice — and only convicted co-conspirator — Terry Nichols was one of those old Army buddies, and when the police searched Nichols’ Kansas farm they found bomb making material, hand-drawn maps of downtown OKC and a copy of Hunter. A matched pair of white terrorist novels: Case Closed. Today Nichols sits in a Colorado Super-Max prison alongside Ramzi Yousef and the Unabomber.
I was in college when the bomb went off and I remember being with my friends on campus as the first news reports came in on CNN. We listened to untethered anchors air their speculation that this was the work of Islamic terrorists and that Muslim men had been spotted in the vicinity. Yes, two years earlier, a group that turned out to be al-Qaeda used a much smaller truck bomb to try and bring down the World Trade Towers. But why would Muslim radicals destroy an ugly, ordinary federal building in Oklahoma? They had bigger, globalized fish to fry. This Oklahoma City thing had a familiar racist scent to me, the same white-patriot terrorist-conspiracy type-shit that I first smelled as a terrified 12 year old.
In college, my personal alienation from suburban American whiteness found refuge in a community of multi-racial activist and wannabe radical intellectuals. We listened to Public Enemy, played chess, went on a hunger strike to win an Ethnic Studies Department, and together, on that April morning, we did not find it difficult to stay a few steps ahead of the Islamophobia on TV.
In this community I was learning that white supremacy was not just something that set off bombs or burned crosses. The ordinariness of whiteness that I knew was its own form of white supremacy, a whiteness that served to maintain the moral authority of “normal” by casting off the face of racism onto Neo-Nazis and “Poor White Trash.” By pointing the finger at Neo-Nazis and the “N-Word” ordinary white people could pretend to be anti-racist while preserving the settler colonialism and structural racism that provides the material basis of white privilege. But this shit, the Oklahoma City bombing, I had learned to recognized the signs, and I knew white terrorism when I saw it.
It’s too bad we didn’t have twitter back in the day or our multicultural pack of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky reading detectives would have solved this caper faster than Reddit brought the Boston Bombers to justice. What we remembered that the TV people didn’t, was that this was either the anniversary of the Waco thing or, even better, it was Hitler’s birthday.
There is a very odd, very good reason why we knew April 20th was Hitler’s birthday. My best friend Pierre lived with his mom and she loved to tell us a story about how she worked as a bank teller back in Evergreen, and one year on April 20th this sweet old German lady brought a cake to work, declaring with pride that she had “baked ze Furher a cake for his birthday.” Immediately, this punch-line (repeated in a tight Dr. Ruth voice) became a running joke among us. The hills of Colorado were apparently very much alive with the sound of Deutschland über alles. And at this moment, our inside joke became a clue that told me one thing: this terrorist was definitely a white guy — or a bunch of white guys — and it definitely has something to do with Alan Berg.
April 20, 1999 — Colorado
Four years later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two students from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado re-invented the school shooting, killing 15 people on April 20, 1999. By this point I had moved to the East Coast, I had re-read The Turner Diaries, and once again there was something familiar about an act of white terrorism from my home state.
The public weighed many explanations as to why two white boys from a good high school in Colorado would do this: bullying, Marilyn Manson, violent video games, bad parents, bad teachers, too many guns, pharmaceuticals, teenage alienation, etc. A cancerous, militarized vision of their own victimized, avenging whiteness was never considered as a motive. To my knowledge, no one knows if they read The Turner Diaries or if they knew of Dr. Pierce, Bob Mathews or Alan Berg. We do know they went out of their way to shoot several of the small handful of black kids at that large, segregated public school.
At Columbine, the history of spectacular white terrorism directly attacked the ordinary whiteness of suburban Denver that so vigorously disowned it. Ordinary whiteness had armed, equipped and triggered its own suicidal terrorist enemy. And this is why white, suburban people found Columbine so disturbing, so inexplicable. How could something like that happen in a place like this?
Apparently Harris and Klebold planned their rampage for April 19th to recognize and out-do McVeigh’s act. Their chosen date claims their affiliation with a culture of white terrorism that none of their explainers recognized. But the bombs they built were not ready in time. So their symbolic date slipped between continuing in a line of white terrorist conspiracies and recognizing the man whose defeated ideas on biological race and purification through murder brought white supremacy to its limit experience.
Turns out, that back home in Colorado, the distance between Neo and Nazi is only one day.
Michael Mark Cohen teaches American Studies and African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and two kids. Follow him on twitter at @LilBillHaywood, check out his archive of radical cartoons at www.cartooningcapitalism.com, and listen to a webcast of his Intro to American Studies course on YouTube.
Thank you to Ayize Jama Everett, Josh Begley, Leigh Raiford and my parents.