On Dec. 30, 1985, law-enforcement officials in the Pacific Northwest were confident that a violent gang of white supremacists, known as The Order, had been dealt a crushing blow. Ten members of the group had just been convicted of violating federal racketeering laws, and all were certain to face stiff sentences. Thirteen others were already in prison after pleading guilty to various charges in connection with The Order's 1984 crime spree of counterfeiting, bank robbery, and murder.
But on Sept. 29, the day three bombs exploded in the northern Idaho resort town of Coeur d'Alene, it became clear that the fallen mantle of The Order had been picked up and dusted off. Although the faces of the alleged perpetrators were new, the ideas that inspired them were not.
Despite successful prosecution of The Order and denunciation of its racist ideology by civil rights leaders, the white-supremacist movement in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the nation has continued to attract converts.
Last week in North Carolina, five members of the White Patriot Party were indicted on charges of conspiring to obtain weapons stolen from a US military installation. The indictment, sought by the US Justice Department and issued by a grand jury in Raleigh, N.C., says the five planned to equip and train a paramilitary unit to ``further the goals of the white supremacist movement.''
One of those indicted is Stephen S. Miller, chaplain and second in command of the White Patriot Party. The Justice Department also charges that the group planned to stage a number of robberies to finance its activities and planned to kill a civil rights lawyer, Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Active membership in racist groups nationwide has dropped in the 1980s, after a resurgence in the late '70s, organizations formed to keep an eye on such groups are quick to point out. But the people who remain in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Nazi Party, the Idaho-based Aryan Nations, and similar groups are hard-liners who have radicalized the movement, says Bill Stanton of Klanwatch, a Southern Poverty Law Center program.
``Some of these groups are getting smaller, but we're also seeing a greater propensity for violence,'' concurs Bill Baker, assistant director of public affairs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Currently, the FBI is conducting between 18 and 25 ``domestic security investigations,'' half of which involve ``right wing'' organizations suspected of engaging in ``criminal activities that could be considered terrorist.''
Last month FBI agents in Phoenix, Ariz., arrested five members of a white-supremacist group called the Arizona Patriots, a paramilitary organization that ``advocates the overthrow of the American government and the killing of the opposition,'' Mr. Baker says. The group had conspired to hold up an armored bank car in Nevada and to blow up an Internal Revenue Service office in Utah, according to court documents filed by the FBI.
Klan-watchers are careful not to overdramatize the influence of right-wing extremists, saying such groups do not have the numerical strength to carry out their agenda. But Mr. Stanton says that ``these people are ... harassing Jewish people, blacks, and other minorities.''
But racial violence ``is not exclusively the purview of hate groups,'' says Joan Weiss, executive director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, based in Baltimore. Most racial incidents - such as last month's mob attack on three black men in New York City, or the harassment in 1985 of an interracial couple in a white Philadelphia neighborhood - are committed by individuals who are not affiliated with organized racism, she says.
To right-wing extremist groups, however, such confrontations between whites, blacks, and other minorities are proof that the day of Armageddon is coming - in the form of a race war. This view is held by the increasing number of white-supremacist leaders in the US who adhere to an elaborate theological doctrine, known as Christian Identity, that attempts to justify racist violence.
The Christian Identity movement, more than anything else, has united Klan groups with paramilitary and survivalist groups. Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations and a self-proclaimed Identity minister, each year attracts like-minded people from across the country to his Idaho compound, where he hosts a ``congress'' for Aryan warriors.
Identity adherents believe that a nation's race - not the spirituality of its populace - is what determines the relationship with God. Identity theology, in short, holds that the white race is God's chosen people, descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (which ultimately migrated to Northern Europe, according to this theory). It claims that Jews are not the children of Israel named in Bible prophecy, but rather are impostors, or children of Satan. Blacks and other people of color are ``mistakes'' that God made before He created the perfect man, a white Adam.
Although some mainline Christians may dismiss Identity theology as absurd, a recent report published by the National Council of Churches warns that ``this system in itself is a powerful magnet.''
Eva Sears, a spokeswoman for the Center for Democratic Renewal, says that ``much more needs to be done'' by churches, schools, civil rights organizations, and community leaders. ``We're not working hard enough, and they [racist groups] are working very hard,'' she says.
Next: How a town reacted when the Aryan Nations moved in next door.