From US racist shooter Dylan Roof to Norwegian Nazi Anders Breivik, terror attacks by whites are portrayed as “inexplicable acts carried out by one or a few actors”.
Professor Kathleen Belew’s new book, Bring the War Home, explodes that myth.
Some 168 people were killed and 500 in injured in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Bomber Timothy McVeigh insisted he had worked alone, apart from a couple of people he coerced into helping him.
But Belew argues that his actions cannot be separated from decades of organisation and propaganda in the white power movement.
Other white power groups had planned and almost carried out attacks on the same building before McVeigh.
Belew argues that the US white power movement grew out of the murderous and racist Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the Vietnam War.
The war’s fallout produced social turmoil throughout US society.
The visible weakening of US power at the hands of the Vietnamese resistance in the 1960s and 70s had profound effects. A huge anti-war movement swept the world. That pulled people’s ideas to the left.
But a minority of people were pulled to the right, albeit in far smaller numbers than if there hadn’t been a mass movement. Belew argues “the war worked to radicalise and arm paramilitary groups” afterwards “on both the right and left”.
And she points to both the white power movement and the Black Panthers, as well as lesser known anti-racist groups.
She focuses on one racist in particular—Louis Beam. He spent 18 months fighting in Vietnam, returning in 1968. Beam returned home and almost immediately involved himself in the Klan.
In 1983 the white power movement made a turn to confront the US state, what Belew describes as a “revolutionary turn”.
As part of the turn, Beam developed the idea that white power groups should operate as cells. He argued this meant “no one need issue an order to anyone”.
“Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe,” he said.
Yet to this day—despite sieges, shootouts and attacks—the US state still treats white power and fascist terrorism as isolated incidents.
The key stages in the Klan’s development come at points in US history when the ruling class needed to ramp up racism to divide the working class.
The Klan experienced three periods of growth—after the American Civil War, the First World War and the Second World War. According to Belew, these surges in activity “aligned more neatly with the aftermath of war than with poverty, anti-immigration sentiment, or populism, to name a few common explanations.”
Racist violence is central to the Klan’s identity. And their peaks in activity don’t just align with the aftermath of wars—they are key periods for its growth.
For instance, it grew because of the threat of white dispossession after the North won the Civil War and abolished slavery. It grew again after the First World War during the height of Jim Crow racial segregation.
And the Klan revived at the time of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
These are periods the US state was under pressure from below and looked to divide and rule. It is no coincidence that racist organisations have capacity to grow at these times.