FEDERAL and local law enforcement agencies deserve public commendation for the vigilant efforts under way to crack down on right-wing terrorist groups operating throughout the United States. Well-publicized arrests have occurred in more than 10 states during the past several months, including parts of the Pacific Northwest, Southeast, and this week the Missouri-Arkansas Ozarks. The leader of a so-called ``survivalist'' cult and four members of a neo-Nazi sect, the Order, surrendered to authorities after a three-day standoff. Authorities uncovered a large arms cache.

What is often forgotten by Americans as they contemplate the violence and shadowy intrigue associated with terrorism is that the terrorist threat in 20th-century American history has come from the far right as often as from the far left. The Ku Klux Klan and somewhat similar white supremacist groups gained a sizable following in the early decades of this century. During the 1930s, there were paramilitary, Nazi-oriented groups such as the Silver Shirts. The American Nazi Party gained dubious attention in the postwar period. In recent years, according to federal officials, a number of neo-Nazi groups have sprung up in the US, including the radical Aryan Nations, based in Idaho, as well as an offshoot from that group, the Order.

What is it that attracts people to extremist paramilitary organizations -- in many cases, young people who have no recollection of either World War II or Hitler's Nazi Party? What are the connections among these groups? How do they obtain sophisticated weapons? The answers to such questions are not fully known.

What does seem increasingly clear is that these groups -- largely male, white supremicist and antiblack and anti-Jewish in orientation -- constitute a threat to public order. Saying that, of course, is not to suggest that they are attracting large numbers of Americans. They are not. Most groups are relatively small in numbers. Many members, experts note, tend to show few of the signs of social acceptance or success.

At the same time, the groups are well armed, and they are linked to a number of robberies and attacks on law enforcement officials, as well as the murder of a radio talk show host in Denver.

Two points seem in order here:

The paramilitary groups of the ``far right'' are not to be confused with genuine American political conservatism. One of the main themes of conservatism has always been a regard for individual liberty -- the freedom of the individual. Yet, the paramilitary groups of the far right are highly regimented.

At the same time, it is interesting that the groups have sprung up during this period of renascent conservatism in the US, when many Americans have reacted in distaste against what are felt to be the ``excesses'' of the social and political activism of the 1960s and '70s.

The racial hatreds, excessive gun culture, and violent behavior of the paramilitary groups have no place in American society. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are to be commended for bringing such groups to justice. ------30{et

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