The media invariably refer to groups like the Hutaree as militias, which they are. But you could argue that the word “terrorists” would also apply. Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, says he’s fine with using the term “militia” - it’s more specific - as long as we keep the nature of these groups’ terrorist activities in the backs of our minds. That’s important, because law enforcement agencies frequently employ a double standard when labeling some offenders terrorists and others as just plain criminals. Take William Krar. In 2003, the 63-year-old Texan was caught with a sodium cyanide bomb, along with 60 pipe bombs and half a million rounds of ammunition. The Justice Department didn't make a big deal out of Krar. It just sent out a few low-level press releases. And it didn't call him a terrorist, a decision reflected in how it chose to prosecute him.
DANIEL LEVITAS: They gave William Krar his full constitutional rights. He ended up pleading guilty, he had access to a lawyer - all the rest. You can compare that with how the Justice Department treated Jose Padilla, who was arrested in Chicago O’Hare. He was a former gang member who had been affiliated with al-Qaeda. None other than John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, interrupted a trip in Moscow, of all places, to announce in an international [LAUGHS] press conference the arrest of Padilla. Here you have Jose Padilla, an American citizen, William Krar, also an American citizen. Padilla is shipped off to a military brig in South Carolina, where he essentially rotted in a cell for more than three years, denied access to counsel. The Justice Department, of course, shouted from the rooftops he was a terrorist, and then later basically recanted most of their allegations against him. He never had a bomb or any weapon in his possession. Compare that to William Krar who actually did have a fully functional [LAUGHS] chemical weapon. Krar was never labeled a terrorist. He was given access to a lawyer, as he should have been, and as Padilla should have been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this story exceptional?
DANIEL LEVITAS: There are many other examples of Americans that have engaged in acts of political violence, for example, the long running conspiracy in the United States to murder abortion clinic providers. This is clearly a network of domestic terrorists. They have underground networks of safe houses and communication, and so on. The FBI has never labeled those organizations domestic terrorists of any kind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To what do you attribute the double standard?
DANIEL LEVITAS: The desire on the part of the federal government is to keep the focus and the attention of the American public on an enemy from abroad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
DANIEL LEVITAS: Well, because I think it undermines the moral authority of our fight against that kind of terrorism when we say that there are people in this country who wrap themselves in the flag and espouse a mantra of patriotism, and yet are still as vicious as al-Qaeda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you watch the reporting, what sort of ideas would you recommend news consumers bring to the reading of these stories?
DANIEL LEVITAS: Don't just look at how the press is characterizing what the organizations have done. You know, with the Internet these days, you can look at the indictment itself and directly at what these groups espouse. These guys had a YouTube video. They had their own political paraphernalia all over the Internet. People should investigate what the ideology and message of these organizations are to kind of assess whether they think, as media consumers, that the organization is being fairly characterized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Get to know these guys in their own words. The information’s out there.
DANIEL LEVITAS: Absolutely, and take them seriously. I mean, too often these organizations are just caricatured, sometimes deservedly [LAUGHS] so, but they do have ideas, racist beliefs about the future of America, anti-Semitic ideas about Jews running the government. These are not ideas that are confined to a fringe single digit percentage of the population. But when people see headlines about these groups and say, oh, only a handful of nuts would believe that, living out on some farm in Michigan, that’s disturbingly not necessarily the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel, thank you very much.
DANIEL LEVITAS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Levitas is the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.