Erik Davis' Figments


Online after the Oklahoma Bombing

As one message on an Internet newsgroup devoted to explosives put it, "There are a lot of unstable compounds out there." The writer was responding to a naif surprised that a bunch of fertilizer and some diesel fuel could rip the side off a nine-story building. But the man could have been talking about the rhetoric of Net politics itself. Long a fertile ground for anarchist and antiauthoritarian thought, Net political culture also includes heaps of reactionary conspiracy theory, racist patriotism, weapons fetishism and bitter, seething resentment against the federal government. It may not be an ideological bomb waiting to go off, but the Net's right wing certainly piles up some inflammable crap.

Last Friday, a goofball post appeared on alt.current-events.amfb-explosion, a newsgroup created for discussion of the bombing of the Albert Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was the America On-Line user profile of a Decker, Michigan resident named "Timothy McVeigh," whose hobby was "organic bombs" and whose occupation was "Mad Bomber." Clearly a hoax (though a few news outlets took the bait), the post nonetheless highlights how modems are supplementing talk radio as the right's communications fetish of choice. Scores of reactionary BBSes dot the land, including the Paul Revere Network, which emulates the original "Freedom Fighter" as they "ride" the telecommunications lines. The Internet offers mailing lists like Texas-Gun-Owners, WACO-DISCUSS and michigun; ftp sites of constitutional and Christian Identity lit; furtive white supremacist chatlines; World Wide Web militia pages (check out this action-packed web site); and Usenet newsgroups like misc.activism.militia, alt.skinheads and talk.politics.guns. Even mainstream services like Compuserve and America Online cater in part to Patriots and Aryan Nationalists.

Of course, generalizing about "the right's" anti-authoritarian fringe is difficult enough, and the Net's polyvocality only makes things murkier. Most of the online Oklahoma discussions I lurked about included perfectly decent reactionaries who were level-headed enough to condemn the blast as well as the unnecessary deaths of the Branch Davidian kids two years ago. Other condolences were savagely bent, like this beauty I scraped from alt.politics.nationalist.white: "It's a real injustice that White children had to be injured and killed in this attack on the ZOG's [Zionist Occupation Government] Okla H.Q." At least in the more public forums, the hardcore kooks and bigots were generally shouted down by more sober compadres or by zealous watchdogs hurling flames from across the ideological divide.

As one fellow put it, reading Usenet at times like this is like "picking a scab." Taken individually, many of the posts were just the angry, ignorant, or sad barkings of ordinary men and women. But collectively they took on the dark obsessive drone of a fever dream. Charged with emotions bordering on atavism and whipped up by the unholy speed of information exchange, a host of demons, fetishes and vengeful archetypes crawl onstage straight from white America's political unconscious.

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The general discussion newsgroup alt.current-events.amfb-explosion had barely been created when threads like "Probably a towel-head" and "BOYCOTT ARABS" first appeared. At the same time, the "Please, don't cry for the BATF" thread reminded folks of the scab that continues to bleed: the federal government's monstrous and unjustified attack on the Branch Davidians two years ago, the Alamo obsessively remembered by many a militiaman. Even if the towel-heads did it, it seemed, the BATF had their karma coming.

Then the police sketches of the skinhead and the tattooed jarhead hit the TV screens, and it was payback time. "You folks are even dumber than I thought," exclaimed one contrary visitor to alt.politics.nationalist.white. Some reasonable militia folk squirmed like stuck worms as they tried to distance themselves from extremists whose underlying ideological motivations they probably shared. But whatever potential pleasure lay in the prospect of Patriots eating crow or even boycotting themselves was crushed by the self-justifying might of their paranoia. The looniest material was on alt.conspiracy, nestled amidst the endless debates about estrogen in the water supply, FDR and the insididous symbology of dollar bills and Coke cans. Humor is not entirely lacking on alt.conspiracy--one person figured that fertilizers and diesel fuel and Oklahoma City added up to "Disgruntled FARMERS." But it was here that the bomb's fever-dream really began to sweat.

Many blamed the blast on Clinton and the Feds, who clearly had the most to gain from the event. (Tim McVeigh is a patsy of course, his head already in the sights of some Jack Ruby.) The State's motive? Demonize and discredit Patriots, the militia movement, Newt, even home schoolers, while continuing to roll back personal freedoms at the behest of the New World Order waiting in the wings. The historical parallel of choice was the Reichstag Fire, named for the German capitol building that many believe the Nazis burned down and then blamed the Communists. (It's one of the great ironies of white supremacist culture that militia types occasioanally compare the tactics of the New World Order to the Nazis). Whole scenarios scrolled up my screen like the apocalyptic prophecies they were, visions of roadblocks and Internet shut-downs and confiscated weapons and invasions of UN troops. "Our only assets will be mobility, dispersion and our ability to hide," wrote one weekend warrior. These folks love to feel prepared, like Boy Scouts with their ears cocked for Gabriels' final trumpet.

For an outsider, these hypnogogic clusters of factoids and rumours and fantasies all manage to crack through the emtionally manipulative gloss of the mainstream media, highlighting the ominous ambiguities that always accompany major political spectacles. As one alt.conspiracist put it, "My method: ingest ALL data, making sure to get info from 'respectable' sources AND the 'lunatic fringe.' Then digest. Eventually, patterns will appear. That's the best we can do." So here's some munchies: That Fort Riley, where McVeich, Nichols and David Iniguez were all stationed, has the highest incidence of suicide, homicide and desertion of any US military base. That BATF received tips before the bombing. That no BATF officers died in the blast. That Oklahoma sounds a lot like Yokohama. That two old Waco hands are on board on the investigation--FBI's Bob Ricks and FEMA's Buddy Young. That the second seismographic blip could not have been the floors pancaking. That CNN sure concocted its theme music pretty fast. That it all happened pretty fast. That Nostradamus predicted it. That black, unmarked helicopters fluttered about the Murrah building just seconds before the explosion.

These mysterious black choppers are the UFOs of the right-wing militias. Like the mysterious "Men in Black" of UFO lore, the black helicopters are paranormal manifestations of federal power. Unmarked government helicopters certainly exist, as do mysterious and manipulative federal agents, but the black copters remind us that many fringe miltiamen do not just have a different world-view than your average Joe. They have in many ways planted their flag into another world altogether, a world governed by the impregnable logic of conspiracy, by uncorked fear and loathing, by symbolic synchronicities (the date of April 19th resonates with the siege on Randy Weaver's residence, Waco, Lexington-Concord, and the execution of white supremacist Richard Snell, and is the day before Hitler's birthday), and by living fictions (the celebrated underground white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries describes a fictional truck bombing of FBI headquarters using an ammonium nitrate bomb detonated at 9:15 a.m).

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But paranoia is an omniverous thing, and there are constellations of truth in its webs no matter how delirous the overall design. Even as early as Thursday, when TV was still talking about Jordanians, a number of online conservatives predicted that the militias would be blamed for the blast. "Based upon passed [sic] performance, it is legitimate to wonder about our friends in DC," wrote one kook, and who could disagree? Though they see conspiracies where more sober observers only see the government's boundless ability to take advantage of events, these folks are absolutely correct that the fear generated by the Oklahoma bombing will be cynically manipulated by a regime desperate to further consolidate and extend its control in the name of antiterrorism.

If Waco demonstrated how the lack of dialogue between two competing and mutually self-fulfilling world-views--David Koresh's end-times scenario and the BATF's and FBI's only slightly less giddy lust for control--leads to tragedy, the Oklahoma blast proves that the confrontation between the paramilitary paradigm and the federal government may be even more disasterous. These prophetic scripts have long polarized the heart of America--individual versus community, wilderness versus garden, freedom versus order--and now they're ripping it apart.

The right wing's seccession from the social is aided and abetted by the much-touted anarchy of the Net, because computer telecommunications help replace mainstream consensus reality with a dizzying array of highly networked subcultural virtual realities. How these tribal world-views interface with the real world is a sorely vexed question, one we're sure to visit in the ensuing weeks, when the Net--already weathering an anti-pornography assault by the Senate--will be put into the sizzler. Federal control freaks and political scapegoaters may call for restrictions on dangerous data like bomb recipes. This will call up the inevitable libertarians, tanked on the pure oxygen of First Amendment enthusiasm, arguing that "Information doesn't kill people, people kill people".

They're both wrong. No-one knows where people stop and information begins. Datastreams and impassioned rhetoric are some of the perceptual feedback loops that compose human beings, and feedback loops can spin out of control. On Nightline, a scraggly and furtive neighbor of James Nichols named Phil Marowski mentioned Day 51, a recent Waco documentary that savages the government, and described how folks with Tim McVeigh's pissed-off mind-set could watch it over and over again. "Half the time you're watching Day 51, and half the time you're talking about it with your closed group at gunshows or wherever. Something's gonna blow."

(Originally published in the Village Voice, May 2, 1995, with research assistance from James O' Meara)

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