Timothy McVeigh's execution, plus the FBI's embarrassing foul-up in the case, gives rhetorical ammunition to some of the most conspiracy-minded antigovernment radicals.
"He shouldn't be executed until the person who drove him to this, [former US Attorney General] Janet Reno, is executed first," said one of many extremist e-mail lists where Mr. McVeigh was characterized as a "hero."
But after a spike in interest following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the "Patriot" movement, as it's called, in fact has seen a steady and steep decline. Among the reasons cited by those who monitor such groups:
* McVeigh's act, for which he took responsibility, was seen as so repulsive that many law-abiding people attracted to militias simply walked away. They didn't want to be associated with anything like that, even though McVeigh had only attended a few militia meetings. In some cases, the bombing precipitated fractures within militias, with the most radical members being tossed out.
* Y2K was a no-show. Some of the most alarmist rhetoric about its potential effects (utilities melting down, computer systems crashing, basic commodities becoming scarce) came from the Patriot ranks, who warned this might lead to social unrest, revolution, and a Big Brother government crackdown. When the year 2000 ticked over and nothing happened, this assertion was shown to be baseless.
* Human rights organizations went after the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups that had provided the philosophical and theological underpinning to many antigovernment radicals. In several cases, lawsuits brought by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center resulted in financial devastation for such groups. Most recently, they put the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho out of business.
* State attorneys general and local prosecutors began cracking down on "tax resistors," many of whom were aligned with militias. State legislatures and law enforcement officials also put a stop to phony financial "liens" that antigovernment radicals had used to harass and intimidate local officials and tie up courts.
* Learning the lessons of Ruby Ridge and Waco, police agencies began taking a much softer approach to standoff situations. This happened in Montana several years ago when the FBI waited out some self-proclaimed "freemen" holed up at a ranch for 81 days, an episode that ended without violence. Last week, officials in Bonner County, Idaho, successfully defused a difficult situation involving a family of six armed children.
* Cops are cracking down on domestic terrorism much more than they were before the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. The FBI, for example, is working on nearly 1,000 such cases now - 10 times as many as before McVeigh's bombing. Almost every major police agency in the country now has a special unit dealing with the threat.
"Probably the biggest factor was a series of high-profile arrests of militia members on weapons, explosives, and conspiracy charges in 1996," reports the Anti-Defamation League.
Still, the picture is mixed. "None of this is to suggest that the radical right in the United States is going away or even shrinking.... The number of explicitly white-supremacist and other hate groups has grown since the Oklahoma City bombing," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "But the Patriot movement - that particular expression of the radical antigovernment right that was characterized by citizen militias, vigilante 'common-law' courts and strident paramilitarism - is fading."
This past year, for example, the number of Patriot groups continued its four-year decline. The number of active militia members - never higher than about 50,000 in the United States, according to watchdog organizations - has dropped off considerably as well.
This does not mean that the mindset behind the kind of threat posed by another Timothy McVeigh does not exist, experts say. In some ways, it has become more widespread and virulent, particularly on websites and in Internet groups. Human rights advocates warn that "white-power music," played by such bands as "Blue Eyed Devils," "Plunder & Pillage," "Bound for Glory," and "Rahowa" (the acronym for "racial holy war") is infiltrating mainstream youth culture as a recruiting tool for hate groups. The greatest concern is for lone-wolf types or small cells of attackers, from antigovernment radicals to ecoterrorists.
As for the McVeigh case and the revelations about the FBI withholding of possibly relevant documents, in the long run it seems unlikely to add much to the intrigue already attached to those suspicious of the federal government.
"This is a movement that is utterly shot through and through with conspiracies," says Mr. Potok. "Does this ... make a significant difference in the level of conspiracy mongering and paranoia? I don't think so."
As one of his final acts, McVeigh apparently intended to make the same point. "For those die-hard conspiracy theorists who will refuse to believe this, I turn the tables and say: Show me where I needed anyone else," he wrote in a letter to The Buffalo (N.Y.) News, his hometown newspaper. "Financing? Logistics? Specialized tech skills? Brainpower? Strategy? ... Show me where I needed a dark, mysterious 'Mr. X!' "
Staff writer Warren Richey contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor