Too Close for Comfort

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh recently had some ominous words for Congress, but legislators and many Jewish leaders weren’t in a listening mood.

At a hearing on counterterrorism, Freeh described the rise of independent, well-financed foreign terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, and warned that these rogue operators might soon have access to chemical or biological materials.

Several Jewish groups responded with statements endorsing his warnings on international terrorism, but they largely ignored the second part of his message, which was this: There are disturbing changes taking place in the loose coalition of homegrown extremist groups that could turn to terrorism as well.

“With the coming of the next millennium, some religious and apocalyptic groups or individuals may turn to violence as they seek to achieve dramatic effects to fulfill their prophecies,” he warned.

He described changes in the loose network of “patriot” militias and anti-government groups, which he said are beginning to absorb more explicitly racist elements.

And he said that the “Christian Identity” movement – a hate philosophy that provides a religious rationale for virulent anti-Semitism – is on the rise, and that it is being absorbed into the militia movement and other far-right ideologies.

So what did Jewish groups have to say about that part of his message? Not much.

The Anti-Defamation League, which led the 1996 fight for a controversial anti-terror law originally intended to bolster the nation’s defenses against both international and domestic terrorists, issued no press releases. Officials of the group declined to comment on Freeh’s assessment, saying only that the right-wing network in this country had gone deeper underground since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and therefore was harder to study.

Several prominent Jewish leaders, queried about the Freeh report, brushed it aside, preferring instead to talk about the foreign terror threat.

The reasons for the silence reflect both the difficulties the nation will have in meeting this new menace and the concerns of a Jewish community that is one of the potential targets of these metastasizing groups.

One explanation is simple fear. Foreign terrorism is scary, but few Americans believe it will ever touch their own lives. But the idea of cults seeking to hasten the apocalypse by releasing nerve gas in the New York subways, or anti-government, anti-Semitic groups mailing packages of anthrax around the country, brings the threat home in a way that makes people want to avert their eyes – especially because effective countermeasures are so difficult.

It may also be that Jewish groups are uncomfortable dealing with expanding gray areas as these groups expand beyond their traditional boundaries.

Increasingly, the distinctions between politically active evangelical groups, hard-right groups of the John Birch Society variety, white supremacists, militant pro-gun groups, anti-government militias and bizarre apocalyptic cultists are getting blurrier, with more ideology held in common.

“It is getting harder to tell where we draw the line,” said the leader of a major Jewish organization who declined to speak for attribution. “Everybody agrees that armed white supremacist groups are dangerous, but what do we say about popular evangelists who warn Christians to gather arms to prepare for anarchy on the streets? There’s a coalescence taking place that’s hard to quantify but is very disturbing.”

Jewish leaders recognize that the threat is expanding, but they also recognize the real dangers of broadening their attacks to encompass the more mainstream religious and political leaders who endorse just enough of the extremist ideologies to give these groups a new measure of legitimacy.

Another reason for the silence among Jewish leaders is the fact that Jews remain more firmly committed to civil-liberties protections than most groups. Even when they were in the forefront of pushing the omnibus anti-terrorism act of 1996, Jewish leaders were uneasy about the measure’s apparent erosion of some basic civil liberties.

If Freeh is right and the extremist underground is increasingly radical, racist and violent, there will be strong pressure for even more Draconian laws, and the Jewish community will find itself caught between its nervousness as the preferred target of many of these groups, and its distaste for stepped-up law enforcement practices that will inevitably trample on some constitutional protections. The Jewish community’s relative silence on the subject reflects the difficulties the nation may have in heeding his warnings about a threat that is too close to home for comfort.