Joseph Conrad anticipated in The Secret Agent the prototype of the late- 20th century American terrorist. Conrad's "Professor" is a bomber in late- 19th century London who invests his impulse of destruction with a dark rationale. Stewing in self-loathing, he aims his rage at the world.
In Atlanta in the early hours of Saturday it was spleen-venting by splinter bomb. In Oklahoma City last year explosives packed in a lorry ripped through a government building, killing 169. In between, there was the arrest of the suspected Unabomber, a solitary woodsman who killed three and wounded 23 in an 18-year letter-bombing campaign. And more recently there have been the burnings of the black churches in the South.
In each case the motivation has been, apparently, different. The former marine accused in the Oklahoma bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was spawned in the paranoid sub-culture of the self-appointed citizen militias. The accused Unabomber is Theodore Kaczynski, a man ostensibly consumed with hatred for computer technology. Some of the church-burning cases have turned up a crop of beery red-necks who do not like black people.
But never has a logical, clearly defined objective been identified. When the IRA planted a bomb in Manchester during Euro 96; when the Basque separatists of ETA set off an explosion in a Spanish airport; when Muslim radicals blew up a US base in Saudi Arabia no one was in any doubt as to the terrorists' intentions. To drive the enemy out. To make the price of a continued British/Spanish/American "occupation" too high.
But the American terrorist is a different animal. Because ultimately he is driven by the need to placate the demons inside his head, he feels no need to make the connection between cause and effect. His stated goal is less than feasible, it is impossible. The Unabomber was no more going to contain the torrent of the World Wide Web than King Canute was going to hold back the tide. The church-burners are not realistically entertaining the notion that they will drive 30 million black Americans back to Africa.
As for the Atlanta pipe-bomber, his act was perhaps an even purer exercise in solipsism. We can only guess as to his motive. It could be, as a bus- driver told me yesterday over breakfast at Atlanta's International House of Pancakes, that the culprit was one of the disaffected downtown vendors who bet his house on the chance of making a killing out of the Olympics but lost out badly because the teeming thousands failed to live up to acquisitive expectations.
More likely "the white American male" who, according to the FBI, issued the telephone bomb warning belongs to one of the rag-tag militias, dozens of which have surfaced in recent years. Two men identified as belonging to this loosely defined breed were arrested earlier this year near Atlanta. They had been caught with a stash of homemade pipe-bombs.
What all these militia groups have in common is, first, that they are made up of white American males and, second, that they share a perception that "the government" is out to get them. Usually this involves a conspiracy with the United Nations to impose a one-world socialist government on a mythical John Wayne America, a land of free, rugged individualists that has been progressively undermined by federal laws and regulations - such as the few that exist to curtail the use of large guns.
Pledged to wage war on a tyrannical state, they see themselves as the vanguard of a Second American Revolution. Much of the theory comes from a group called the Militia of Montana, who, from a barn in a small town called Noxon, spin out underground material to their brothers in arms around the country by fax or on the Internet.
The brain, the Lenin, of the Militia of Montana is Bob Fletcher. Conrad's "professor" made flesh, he is a small, pasty, hunched man who wears black rayon suits. I met him last year shortly after the Oklahoma bombing. He explained "one-world socialist government" to me; told me about sightings of mysterious black helicopters he believed to be manned by Russians; he said plans were afoot to deploy the Royal Hong Kong police on the Canadian border.
But he became most passionate when he told me how he had once run a toy factory, owned a Mercedes and carried 17 credit cards but now, because of some unspecified trickery practised on him, he was reduced to driving a battered Volkswagen Beetle and did not have "enough credit to buy a dead fly".
That was the moment of truth. Fletcher, in common with all the militia members (in common too with the Unabomber and the neo-Ku Klux Klan church- burners), was a man seething with his resentment at his failure to share in the American Dream. Through bad luck, bad faith or sheer incompetence they have buckled under the terrible strain of becoming winners in a society that despises losers. It is too crushing to accept that they have been too weak to triumph in the Land of Opportunity. So they invent a fantasy to convince themselves that they are strong. Sometimes, as with Bob Fletcher, the fantasy is enough and a precarious dignity is restored. In others the anger is too deep and they have to lash out, to act on their mad, escapist convictions. Like the Atlanta bomber who dropped off his knapsack in a crowded square and scurried off, like Conrad's professor, "diverting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind".Reuse content