Antigovernment Extremism Booms in Appalachians

Ten months ago, on the night of November 11, large-caliber bullets began crashing into the headquarters of the Southeast Bomb Task Force in Andrews, N.C., almost literally parting the hair of one federal agent and barely missing another. Agents assigned to the search for accused bomber Eric Rudolph dived for cover as the assault continued.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, the attack was over. The shooter, who had fired eight 7.62-caliber bullets while standing in the open on a public highway just 250 yards away, vanished, simply strolling away or driving off into the darkness.

The assault on this fenced and heavily guarded compound was remarkable for its brazenness. If an agent had been killed, prosecutors would surely have sought the death penalty for the perpetrator, and at the very least the attacker faced decades in prison.

But the sniper, operating amid the wooded hills and anti-government sentiment of western North Carolina, apparently felt secure enough to take the risk.

He may have had a point.

Anti-federalism in this mountainous part of the state — and in adjoining areas of South Carolina and Tennessee — dates all the way back to the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, when the government tried to force Irish settlers to pay taxes on their bootlegged brew.

The Feds didn't have much luck getting cooperation from the locals then, and despite a $1 million reward for Rudolph, they don't seem to be doing much better today.

It is a region where Rudolph seems to have many friends.

In recent decades, this area has become a magnet for many in the radical right, men and women who are drawn to a place where the land is still cheap, the living is private and the population is white.

In 1972, Nord Davis Jr., who was to become a leading patriarch of the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion, moved to the area. A decade later, Ben Klassen, founder of the neo-Nazi Church of the Creator (see The Great Creator) followed, setting up shop in Otto, near the Georgia line.

Today, despite the deaths of both men in the 1990s, extremist activity, supported passively by some locals, is remarkably high — much as in the better-known radical enclaves of the Pacific Northwest and the Arkansas Ozarks.

"It's the legacy of hate and bigotry," Jack Horton, a former Macon County (N.C.) official now working in another county, told a reporter. "It just changes people."

Cells, Bombs and Common Law
· While "common law" activities are declining in most of the country, court files in this part of the country bulge with arcanely worded documents filed by proponents of this pseudo-legal ideology. They include declarations of "sovereignty" from the law, threats against officials and false property liens filed against those seen as enemies.

· Militias and other "Patriot" groups are not only active here, they take a harder line than most counterparts in other parts of the nation. A large number of those involved are adherents of Christian Identity, people who hold that Jews are the literal progeny of Satan, blacks are soulless "mud people" and whites are the true chosen people.

In June, almost 160 militia supporters traveled from several states to meet and train just across the border in Tennessee — about half of them so-called "seedline" Identity hard-liners.

· Every year, as many as four major Identity gatherings are held in nearby parts of Tennessee, from the "Feast of the Tabernacles" to the Identity version of Passover. These meetings have drawn key Identity figures, many of whom have criminal records.

· An underground, largely the spinoff of Davis' old organization, has developed a fairly extensive secret cell structure in the area, composed in part of some of the estimated 200 Davis followers who came to the area where Davis moved 27 years ago. One cell is known to be stockpiling explosives and training on a sophisticated gun range.

· Anti-abortion violence, like that attributed to alleged clinic bomber Rudolph, has escalated since early 1998. In Asheville, 75 miles from the Andrews area where officials believe Rudolph is still hiding, a bomb went off at the only abortion clinic in the western part of the state. The March 13 blast injured no one — probably because the powerful device only partly detonated.

Five incidents at central North Carolina clinics — arsons and unsuccessful dynamite attacks in Fayetteville and Greensboro — also were recorded.

· A cottage industry of extremist surveillance of the federal agents searching for Rudolph has sprung up, with blizzards of e-mail and other messages warning that agents are really preparing to impose martial law on unsuspecting patriots.

The cell phone traffic of both agents and reporters has been illegally listened in on with sophisticated scanners, and notes have been left in motels to let agents know they are being watched.

Planting the Seeds
North Carolinians are not more racist, or criminal, than others. To a large extent, the strength of the radical right in the area is the result of accidents of geography and history. But these accidents have produced a local movement that is remarkable.

In many ways, these activities are the direct result of the ideological seeds sown by a little-known former IBM executive and antique car buff. Nord Davis started out as the editor of the Model A Ford Restorers Club newsletter, but he went on to become one of the nation's most prolific publishers of hate material — including a major 1993 treatise that Patriot leader James "Bo" Gritz calls "almost as explosive as anything set off at Oklahoma City."

Entitled Star Wars, the 79-page booklet spoke of "perpetual warfare" between Christians (people of the five-pointed star) and Jews (the six-pointed star) and called for death for gays and race-mixers. Davis' tracts were so widely disseminated that he broke the all-time record at the Andrews post office by sending out 1 1/2 tons of material in one day.

Davis, who died of cancer in 1997, began his odyssey long ago.

In 1958, he once wrote, his life changed after reading a book that alleged that President Dwight D. Eisenhower "was a conscious agent of the Communist Conspiracy." Eisenhower was not the only subversive president in Davis' eyes. So were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Even Ronald Reagan was "a secret International Socialist."

Davis claimed he resigned from IBM in 1966 "to expose IBM's sales of sophisticated computers to the Communists," joining a group that believed a Communist takeover was coming in 1973. American patriots managed to foil the scheme, Davis wrote, but the plot was again put into effect in the 1990s with the coming of the "New World Order."

After the failure of a "Christian covenant community" that Davis set up in Massachusetts between 1968 and 1972, Davis packed his four daughters and wife into a travel trailer and took a trip through the mountains of several states.

He was looking for moderate climate, a plentiful water supply, low taxes and a place where one could become economically self-sufficient. He found all of this and more in the Nantahala mountains, in a community just 10 miles from Murphy, the town where Rudolph would grow up.

Macon County, North Carolina's westernmost, was chosen "because it had all of the above," Davis wrote, and was peopled with "pretty well-armed" Christians.