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'Bring The War Home' Shows 'Lone Wolf' Terrorists Are Really Part Of A Pack

Last year, when neo-Nazis and members of the so called alt-right demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., many Americans evinced shock that such a thing could happen: A demonstration of the white power movement, in 2017. But it's only the latest in a history of social activism that goes back decades — and, as Kathleen Belew argues in her new book, Bring the War Home, we ignore that history at our peril. In it, she explains what many disparate events have in common — the war in Vietnam.

"It's called Bring the War Home because that provided the clearest way of thinking about a problem I ran into in the archive," Belew says, "which is that Klansmen and neo-Nazis committing violence in the United States — ranging from veterans to those who didn't serve in the war — commonly understood the Vietnam War and invoked the war to describe why they chose the activism they did, and to frame their tactics and their uses of violence in many different contexts."

Interview Highlights

On the importance of leaderless resistance to the domestic terrorism that began in the 1980s.

Leaderless resistance, first of all, made it less important to recruit large numbers of people — because now the movement was focused on smaller, totally committed activists, rather than turning out a bunch of weekend activists for a rally. It made it really important for the activists to have enough in common culturally to understand their shared goals, and that's another place where the narrative of the Vietnam War became very important to them. And it also made it very difficult to prosecute white power violence or to understand it as a social movement, because its actions could be more readily understood and dismissed in both courts and in media portrayals as the acts of one, or a few individuals.

On the myth of the "lone wolf" terrorist — for example, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh

Portraying the Oklahoma City bombing particularly as the work of one, or a few actors worked to totally erase what the country had understood about white power violence before that event. One of the misconceptions is that Timothy McVeigh acted alone or with a few conspirators. But McVeigh — a simple social geography of Timothy McVeigh shows that he was involved in this movement for years before the bombing. So this points to a motivated and ideologically framed attack.

What seems new and alarming in our current moment is not new. These events were covered in the front pages of national newspapers, on morning news magazine shows, and yet, somehow we lost the understanding of this movement, such that the altercation in Charlottesville can seem astonishing to people without this history.

On the link between America's ongoing wars and the rise of the alt-right

The history shows us that this movement never received a definitive stop in court or in public opinion. In every surge of Ku Klux Klan activism in American history, there's a strong correlation with the aftermath of warfare. The aftermath of warfare has correlated with widespread violence across all groups of American civilians, not just veterans but throughout American society. And in those surges of violence, groups like this have found resurgent memberships.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.