- Submachine Guns and Electronic Schoolmarms: A True Crime Western
The militias, the Patriots, and the Branch Davidians, although some of the more visible paramilitary groups in recent memory, were not the first. Since the Vietnam War, this country has seen a steady proliferation of extremist, right-wing groups. Often rooted in neo-Nazi ideas of white racial purity, “true” Christian identity, anti-Semitism, and a distrust of the federal government, these survivalist groups plan to survive a coming apocalypse with their stockpiles of food and weapons, bunkers, automatic rifles and submachine guns. 1 Such paramilitary survivalism—of both the religious and the secular variety—has gained momentum recently, and it is now one of the largest underground movements in the country. This essay focuses on a text—the true crime novel by journalists Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt called The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America’s Racist Underground (1990)—which documents the activities of one such paramilitary group: Robert Jay Mathews and the racist, right-wing Brüders Schweigen, or the Silent Brotherhood. [End Page 315]
This novel is, in more ways than one, anxious about boundaries. From the beginning, The Silent Brotherhood worries over how a clean-cut, suburban kid like Robbie Mathews grew up to be a fascist. We hear that the Mathews family in Arizona was “the prototypical all-American clan of the 1950s” (31); Robbie was an “average student in school” (40) who kept his hair short, never did drugs, had an avid interest in history, and became Mormon. Yet somehow, Robbie goes bad, moving steadily and inexorably away from suburban respectability. He joins the John Birch society, meets several friends “with an intense fascination with firearms” (50), and finally forms his first right-wing extremist group—the Sons of Liberty. Mathews moves to Washington and falls in with Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations, a Christian Identity church which preaches that the United States, or the Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG), is plotting to bring down the “white” race. Eventually, Mathews breaks away from Aryan Nations and forms the Silent Brotherhood. This Brotherhood is most famous for assassinating the Jewish talk-show host Alan Berg in 1984, but it also robbed several armed cars to form a “$3,800,000 war chest,” created a paramilitary training camp, and plotted to sabotage major cities in the Northwest in order to turn Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana into a “White Bastion.” Mathews and the Brotherhood escaped capture for several years before being surrounded finally at a house on an island off the coast of Washington. All the members surrendered except Mathews, who in a thirty-six hour shoot-out with an F. B. I. SWAT team was killed and burned in the house.
Some of The Silent Brotherhood’s boundary and containment anxieties have to do with its uncertain genre status. Resulting from a cross-pollination of investigative journalism with Western, gothic, and horror traditions, this novel’s status as a novel makes the delineation of the neo-fascist psycho from the traditional Western hero a messy and ultimately unsuccessful business. Novels, after all, require some degree of sympathy with a protagonist, and yet constructing sympathy for a neo-fascist can be tricky. We do not like to think there is anything sympathetic about right-wing fanatics; they are dangerous, unknowable, and “out there.” The Silent Brotherhood, however, demonstrates that when these “fanatics” walk, talk, and act more like John Wayne than Adolf Hitler, they threaten to become sympathetic. Because of its generic lineage, the novel is also a cache of misogynistic and homosocial/homoerotic [End Page 316] tropes, devices, fears, and desires. Multiple levels of homosocial identification and fascination between the criminals, the F. B. I., and the journalists themselves prevent any of these men from being easily distinguished from each other. The journalists, perhaps unwittingly, play out and participate in narratives of the frontier and the West as they construct their narrative about these neo-fascists. If in the Western women represent the terrifying restrictions of law and order, in this neo-Western, investigative journalists, in conjunction with the F. B. I., serve this narrative purpose. Like Huck Finn’s “sivilizing” Aunt...