Radical Right

The Children of George Metesky

Not every terrorist is a product of the left or the right.

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Here we go again. Almost immediately after a former mental patient named John Bedell opened fire outside the Pentagon last week, the usual suspects rushed to suggest he was "inflamed by far-right conspiracy theories," had views that "eerily reflect fringe right-wing rhetoric," and was driven by "the same open hatred that right-wing bloggers, AM talk radio hosts, Fox News' lineup of anti-government prophets, and Tea Party leaders have been frantically fueling for the last year." Writers on the right retorted by stressing everything in Bedell's life that might seem left-wing: He was a registered Democrat, he hated George Bush, he had an affinity for 9/11 Truth theories.

Neither narrative was sustainable. The conservatives did a good job of refuting the idea that Bedell belonged to their tribe, but they were less persuasive when they suggested he hailed from the left. You needn't be a leftist to despise Bush, to be a truther, or even to join the Democratic Party. Perhaps he was some sort of libertarian—he liked both Mises and marijuana—but even if that label fits it hardly does justice to his baroque philosophy. The more information about the man emerged, the stranger his politics seemed, until finally Bedell was starkly revealed as one of a kind: a lone wolf—or lone lemming, given that the only person he managed to kill was himself—who had an elaborate plan for a monetary system in which the currency would be backed by cannabis.

I doubt the pundit class will learn much from the experience. When you're convinced the other side of the spectrum is bubbling over with violent rage, it's just too tempting to view every violent act through that same paranoid prism.

The template for these debates was set last summer by James Wenneker von Brunn, the aging neo-Nazi who attempted to start a shooting spree at the Holocaust museum in Washington. Chin-stroking centrists and fire-breathing progressives joined hands in blaming the right for inspiring the attack, even though there was no record of right-wing notables denouncing the museum. Many conservatives pushed back by claiming von Brunn was "really" a leftist, since he held several positions that most people on the right would reject. Of course, he also held several positions that most people on the left would reject. If there's one thing you can say for both the mainstream left and the mainstream right, it's that for all their flaws, they aren't neo-Nazis.

Von Brunn at least had an identifiable ideology, fringy though it may be. When Joe Stack flew a plane into an Austin IRS office last month, he left behind a manifesto that was a mix of left-wing resentments, right-wing resentments, and painfully specific resentments drawn from Stack's own life—most notably his tax problems, which he recounted with a wonk's attention to detail. The statement was obviously the product of one sad and angry man's experiences. Yet the prominent liberal blogger Josh Marshall, highlighting Stack's reference to "Mr. Big Brother IRS man," greeted the manifesto with the headline "Ideas Have Consequences," as though no American would resent the tax man if it weren't for the GOP's anti-tax rhetoric.

It doesn't work that way. Stack's worldview, like Bedell's, was a personalized hodge-podge. These men represent not the far left, not the far right, but the very far end of the political long tail. If they belong to a tradition, you won't find it by tracing the intellectual evolution of any organized movement. You'll find it in the lives of people like George Metesky, Samuel Byck, and Ted Kaczynski.

Metesky was a generator wiper for the New York power company who was injured in a boiler explosion in 1931, then saw his workman's comp claim denied. After a few years, he took his revenge by planting bombs around the city; he also sent postcards to the police and letters to the papers, featuring statements such as "BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME." In 1956, 16 years after his first device was discovered, he was captured based on clues in his messages.

Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman, attempted in 1974 to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. Like Metesky, Byck spoke to the public through communiqués—in this case, rambling tapes he had mailed to the syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff, the scientist Jonas Salk, and the composer Leonard Bernstein. Like Stack, Byck had both a specific grievance (the Small Business Administration had rejected his application for a loan) and a broader set of personal and social resentments. ("Whoever dies in project Pandora Box," he declared, "will be directly attributable to Watergate scandals.") Though white, he had tried to join the Black Panther Party; this was fictionalized to good effect in the movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon, with a scene that culminated with Byck proposing the Panthers rename themselves the Zebras.

Kaczynski is the Unabomber, that mathematician in a Montana shack who mailed 16 bombs to his targets from 1978 to 1995. Because he was driven by his hatred of technology, Kaczynski is often classified as an especially earnest Green; there's a silly test out there that asks you to pick which statements come from the Unabomber Manifesto and which from the works of Al Gore. But the pair don't have much in common. Gore is a liberal technocrat who wants the government to manage industry much more tightly. Kaczynski believes that "industrial-technological society cannot be reformed in such a way as to prevent it from progressively narrowing the sphere of human freedom," and he's no more a liberal than he is a conservative: His manifesto opens with an assault on the left, featuring statements such as "Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality." The document has more identifiable intellectual influences than Byck's tapes or Stack's suicide letter, but it's still ultimately one eccentric man's vision.

Joe Stack's manifesto earned him some sympathizers: alienated readers from both the left and the right who found something resonant in his resentments. That too has precedent, and not just among the Luddites who admire the Unabomber. Even Metesky became a folk hero in some circles. Members of the Diggers, a tribe of '60s radicals, often adopted the name George Metesky as a pseudonym, celebrating the bomber as a rebel against the system. "We're all Meteskys," one of them told The Village Voice in 1967. "We're a generation of schizophrenic mutants."

Those Diggers weren't brainwashed by some left-wing media cabal, and the men who launched these kamikaze attacks on the IRS and the Pentagon weren't a product of a right-wing noise machine. They cobbled together their worldviews on their own, ignoring the boundaries beloved by the country's dominant political subcultures. In that respect, at least, even homicidal crazies have something in common with the majority of Americans.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.

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  1. Could it be? My wolfpack was two.

  2. You needn’t be a leftist to despise Bush, to be a truther, or even to join the Democratic Party.

    This may technically be true, but it seems like a pretty desperate reach to me.

    1. This may technically be true, but it seems like a pretty desperate reach to me.

      How so? There’s tons of people on the right who hate Bush. Truthers hail from both the left and the right. And people register as Democrats or Republicans for all sorts of reasons. For all we know he wanted to vote for someone in the primary.

      The important point is that the man has left a record of his beliefs, and they are no closer to a standard-issue Democrat’s than they are to a standard-issue Republican’s.

    2. The combination of Bush-hating, trutheritis, and card-carrying Democrat is pretty rare on the right, Jesse.

      Less ostentatiously even-handed, but perhaps more accurate, to say that:

      “Stack’s manifesto probably owes more to the left than to the right, but he was sui generis and not a representative of any popular movement.”

      1. The combination of Bush-hating, trutheritis, and card-carrying Democrat is pretty rare on the right, Jesse.

        And indeed, I wrote that “conservatives did a good job of refuting the idea that Bedell belonged to their tribe.”

        “Stack’s manifesto probably owes more to the left than to the right, but he was sui generis and not a representative of any popular movement.”

        Ah, but we were discussing Bedell, not Stack.

        1. we were discussing Bedell, not Stack

          Pah. Pettifogging pedantry, sir.

      2. He was also a fan of the Mises institute on facebook and made posts against big government. They guy wasn’t left wing, he was crazy.

        One thing I do have trouble with though is that I can’t think of anything like this happening while bush was in power. There were a few domestic terrorists when Clinton was in power, a few before that, and a few now, but a good eight years with nothing.

        1. The only one really was Bruce Ivins, the U.S. government scientist who sent the anthrax letters through the mail, while taking advantage of 9/11 to try to make it look like it was radical Muslims.

          There is some evidence to indicate that the guy may not have wanted to kill anyone, but he did, and should probably be considered a domestic terrorist.

        2. And actually eight years without an abortion clinic bombing or killing.

          Though nothing stops Fred Phelps.

        3. What about John Muhammed aka John lee Malvo – DC sniper?

    3. “This may technically be true, but it seems like a pretty desperate reach to me.”

      Oh, come on – they need new members 😉

  3. Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman, attempted in 1974 to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. …Like Stack, Byck had both a specific grievance (the Small Business Administration had rejected his application for a loan) and a broader set of personal and social resentments. (“Whoever dies in project Pandora Box,” he declared, “will be directly attributable to Watergate scandals.”) Though white, he had tried to join the Black Panther Party; this was fictionalized to good effect in the movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon, with a scene that culminated with Byck proposing the Panthers rename themselves the Zebras.

    If Obama gets de-elected in 2012, what are the odds Sean Penn will try to crash a plane into the White House?

    1. None. With his temper, he’ll crash the plane before he gets there, ’cause he won’t stop slamming his head against the instrument panel.

      1. He’ll just over emote for hours on end – like in his movies.

  4. Don’t forget Luke Helder the smiley face bomber.

    1. A prosecutor may have a difficult time making hate crime charges stick on a smiley face bomber.

  5. “I guess I’m a pretty uh, I mean I guess I’m a pretty sick guy.” -Patrick Bateman

  6. If U R not a mainstream dem or rep then u r a terrist suspect.

  7. No alt text? A rare miss.

  8. had an elaborate plan for a monetary system in which the currency would be backed by cannabis.

    Of course. Currency backed by an agricultural product. That’s why the Dutch rule the world.

  9. Sometimes a whackjob is just a whackjob.

    1. Is this a little like those old Mafiosos who would get really excited when they talking about how so and so wise guy whacked off this or that guy and about all the guys they whacked off or want to whack off?

      Then one they just never said that anymore, it was either just “off” so and so, or it was “whack out” this or that effin expletive.

  10. All the animals are capably murderous.

  11. Thanks for the link Jesse. Click on “stressed” in the first paragraph and you’ll see my article.

    I agree that Bedell is not a leftist, but Bedell is closer to the left than he is to the right, which makes calling him a “right wing extremist” ridiculous

    From my article:

    “If your only source of information was establishment media reporting, it would be easy to draw an altogether false conclusion from the recent attacks by John Patrick Bedell (Pentagon gunman) and Joseph Andrew Stack (suicide pilot) that a wave of “right wing extremism” or “tea party terrorism” is descending upon America. This narrative is being pushed relentlessly by the establishment media, despite indisputable countervailing facts as shown in detail below. An objective review of the writings and activities of the suspects in each of the recent horrific terrorist attacks by Americans on Americans ? Joseph Andrew Stack (airplane suicide bomber), John Patrick Bedell (gunman at Pentagon), and Amy Bishop (massacred fellow professors) ? unequivocally demonstrates that each of these deranged individuals actually have closer ties to the American left than any right wing group.”

  12. What about Harlan Drake, the guy who murdered an anti-abortion picketer and a businessman? According to this story, he admitted the crimes to the jury and gave an explanation of his motives:

    ‘He says his mother was upset by Jim Pouillon’s pro-life signs and said he was protesting at Owosso High School that day. . . .

    Drake describes the thoughts going through his mind prior to shooting Pouillon. “I did not believe that he should be showing the sign to children, especially at a high school where young girls of impressionable age would see that and either be disgusted or scared.”‘

    Draked added that, after killing Pouillon, he decided that ‘I just shot one person. I might as well shoot anybody else that I think might deserve to be shot that day.’ So he killed a local businessman who he thought had been mean toward his mother.

    Personally, I believe that this Drake fellow was a lone killer, and maybe a nutball. He certainly has an exaggerated sense of filial loyalty, killing people his mother dislikes.

    If we apply loose guilt-by-association principles, however, it would be easy to make Drake into a representative of the ‘prochoice’ movement. After all, his criticisms of prolife picketers is reminiscent of the criticism the pro-choice crowd makes of such picketers.

    If the right to life of the unborn were a progressive crusade, and it were ‘right-wing zealots’ who advocated for abortion rights, then these columnists would today be pinning Drake’s actions on the right-wingers.

  13. This seems so self-obvious to me I don’t understand why it deserves a feature length article…

  14. Andrew Kehoe ought not to be forgotten.

    Perhaps it was too long ago?

  15. And actually eight years without an abortion clinic bombing or killing [while Bush II was in office].

    Huh? Wikipedia lists the following:

    June 11, 2001: An unsolved bombing at a clinic in Tacoma, Washington destroyed a wall, resulting in US$6000 in damages.

    July 4, 2005: A clinic Palm Beach, Florida was the target of an arson. The case remains open.

    December 12, 2005: Patricia Hughes and Jeremy Dunahoe threw a Molotov cocktail at a clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana. The device missed the building and no damage was caused. In August 2006, Hughes was sentenced to six years in prison, and Dunahoe to one year. Hughes claimed the bomb was a “memorial lamp” for an abortion she had had there.

    September 13, 2006: David McMenemy of Rochester Hills, Michigan crashed his car into the Edgerton Women’s Care Center in Davenport, Iowa. He then doused the lobby in gasoline and then started a fire. McMenemy committed these acts in the belief that the center was performing abortions, however Edgerton is not an abortion clinic.

    April 25, 2007: A package left at a women’s health clinic in Austin, Texas contained an explosive device capable of inflicting serious injury or death. A bomb squad detonated the device after evacuating the building. Paul Ross Evans (who had a criminal record for armed robbery and theft) was found guilty of the crime.

    May 9, 2007: An unidentified person deliberately set fire to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

    December 6, 2007: Chad Altman and Sergio Baca were arrested for the arson of Dr. Curtis Boyd’s clinic in Albuquerque. Altman’s girlfriend had scheduled an appointment for an abortion at the clinic.

    [footnotes omitted]

  16. Though not a lone wolf, considering private prisons, asset forfeiture, their tactics (military style raids) and actions does the DEA fit the definition of domestic terrorists?

  17. “or lone lemming, given that the only person he managed to kill was himself”

    Generally speaking, lemmings do not commit suicide. I believe the “Lemming Suicide Plunge” myth began with a Disney movie.

    1. I expected this comment to come much sooner than it did…

      1. Sorry. I had a busy morning.

  18. The thing that ties all these people is schizotypy, or disorganized though less severe than psychosis. You see it in radicals, greens, news-agers, homeless people.

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  34. “Not every terrorist is a product of the left or the right.”

    Nicely reasoned and written article — thanks for sharing.

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