Make-believe world inspires US terror
Ex-Python Terry Gilliam's anti-bureaucracy satire 'Brazil' is a cult for America's far right, Nick Toczek writes
Sunday 06 August 1995
The caller's real name was not Tuttle, but Timothy McVeigh, who ran an army surplus business in the Midwest with a friend, Terry Nichols. These two men are now awaiting trial on charges relating to the Oklahoma City bomb blast later that month, in which at least 168 people died. The telephone messages - among thousands of scraps of evidence thrown up in the aftermath of America's worst-ever terrorist outrage - provide important clues to the the character of the extreme right in America today. They link McVeigh in specific ways to a kind of fiction and fantasy that acts as a powerful drug to the scattered groups and embittered individuals who embrace racism and bigotry.
The name "Tuttle" was not an improvised nom de guerre: McVeigh had been using it for two years. In 1993, for instance, he used the name when he advertised an anti-tank weapon for sale in the racist newspaper Spotlight. According to Phil Morowski, a friend and neighbour of the Nichols family, McVeigh told him that he "needed an alias to protect himself from people at gun shows who disagreed with his political views".
Why Tuttle? The original Tuttle was a character in the 1985 film Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, the American in the Monty Python team. In the film, Harry Tuttle is a working man who rises up against blind bureaucracy and becomes the leader of an armed militia.
Played by Robert de Niro, the character is now a hero to the American far right. It seems that Gilliam's Python eye for the absurd spotted something that would acquire a more sinister meaning for Americans in the 1990s. The organisation that McVeigh was calling two weeks before the Oklahoma bombing, the National Alliance, also has one foot in the world of fiction, for it is run by William Pierce, the author of a novel described by the FBI as "the Bible of the racist right".
Tens of thousands of copies of The Turner Diaries have been sold since it first came out in 1978, and it is still selling well - this spring, before the Oklahoma bomb, Pierce received a fresh run of 21,000 copies from the printers. The book describes a future race war intended to ethnically cleanse America. One short passage gives an indication of its influence:
"At 9.15 yesterday morning our bomb went off in the FBI's national headquarters building. Our worries about the relatively small size of the bomb were unfounded: the damage was immense. Before five o'clock yesterday, I began helping Ed Sanders mix heating oil with the ammonium nitrate fertiliser . . . Meanwhile, George and Henry were out stealing a truck . . ."
The similarities to the real bomb that exploded in Oklahoma City are chilling: it went off just after 9am; it was planted outside a federal building; it consisted of ammonium nitrate fertiliser soaked in diesel oil; and it was packed into a hired truck. Tim McVeigh is known to have read The Turner Diaries while he was in the US army. Fellow soldiers remember him talking enthusiastically about it and encouraging them to read it. Indeed, he is reported to have given his copy to John Fulcher, a friend serving in his company, with the admonition to "keep it quiet" because he didn't want to get into trouble over it.
If the Oklahoma bombers drew direct inspiration from The Turner Diaries, they would not have been the first. The book served as a blueprint for a gang in the 1980s led by Robert Mathews, who bombed, murdered, robbed and forged in the name of right-wing ideology and distributed millions of dollars in booty to racist groups including the National Alliance. Though they were known to outsiders as The Order, they liked to refer to themselves as The Organisation, after the book's fictional group. Mathews spoke at the National Alliance's 1983 convention, calling for war against "the filthy, lying Jews and the parasitical usury system". A year later he was burned to death during a siege by federal officers and became a "race martyr" of the extreme right.
Pierce has made no attempt to distance himself from the Oklahoma attack. Indeed, he boasts of the possibility - already accepted by the FBI - that it was the "inspiration" for the bombing. Just five days after it, a speech by him appeared on the Internet. In it, Pierce called the US administration "gangsters", adding: "When a government engages in terrorism against its own citizens, it should not be surprised when some of those citizens strike back and engage in terrorism." He went on: "You are the real terrorists . . . the ones responsible for this bombing, for the deaths of these children."
While The Turner Diaries is down-the-line bigotry, the case of Brazil is different. It is an Orwellian tale, told through black comedy, in which the story of Harry Tuttle is a sub-plot. It was also made and set in Britain. What nerve has it touched in extremist America?
It opens with an urban bombing. A TV shop explodes, killing a passer- by pushing a pram. As a pile of televisions burns, one screen still functions. On it, a government representative talks of combating a wave of terrorism that has broken out in response to excessive taxation.
Tuttle, a heating engineer, commits the "crime" of repairing state-run home-heating systems and ends up an outlaw, or "freelance subversive". At one point, he complains that "the whole country's sectioned off - can't make a move without a form".
Many Americans - and not just those on the extreme right - can identify with Tuttle. Anti-tax protest and opposition to excessive government regulation run deep in American political culture, and the far right has simply taken them to extremes. To take just one example, last year the leader of the extremist Idaho Militia declared that America was on the verge of a new civil war and told his followers: "Go up and look legislators in the face, because some day you may have to blow it off." Brazil is the world as seen by these people. The state, they feel, is at war with them.
Of the bomb suspects, we know that Terry Nichols kept a library of anti- tax and anti-government literature and video tapes. He kept weapons too, and had three empty ammonium nitrate sacks, the fertiliser used in the bomb.
To such people, Harry Tuttle is a role model, and McVeigh is not the only one to have adopted his name. One Idaho Militia spokesman identified himself to reporters recently as Bill Tuttle. The connection between film and fact has come as a surprise to playwright Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote Brazil with Gilliam and Charles McKeown. "The subject-matter and the tone seem to me very distant from the agenda of the American right," he said. For him the association was with Orwell: "I used to say to Terry, 'Isn't this a bit of a retread? Isn't it Nineteen Eighty Four?' It wasn't until some time later that Terry [who wrote the first draft of the script] said to me that he had never seen or read Nineteen Eighty Four."
Robert de Niro, for his part, dismisses the link. "It's a long reach to make the connection between a role and actions of a madman 10 years later," he told one reporter.
It may be a long reach, but the connection has clearly been made, and perhaps we should not be surprised. From Disneyland to plastic surgery, Americans have been raised on the notion that fantasy can become reality. That is why an innocent black comedy like Brazil can be hijacked by extremists in this way - and why The Turner Diaries is now causing such concern. With the heavily-armed right-wing militia movement to which McVeigh was close reported to be three million strong in the US, the warnings of a new civil war seem less and less like fantasy. The last word goes to Pierce, who, describing his vision of the future in the aftermath of Oklahoma, foresaw "real terrorism - planned, organised terrorism - before too long . . . Americans will begin engaging in terrorism on a scale that the world has never seen before."
Nick Toczek is the author of 'The Nazi, the Klan and the Aryan Man', a history of the Anglo-American far right, to be published by AK Press at the end of the year.
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