Here we are again, with the FBI and local law enforcement finally closing down a right-wing militia action. But they’ll be back: I know it. I studied it. Around 1995, the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, I got curious about the radical right – militias, the Christian Identity movement, white supremacists, freemen. I needed to know what my fellow citizens who were antigovernment, racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic were thinking – and doing.
I spent three years looking at right-wing websites, a revolting pursuit because of the raging hatreds and demented theories. The effort wasn’t to satisfy my curiosity, although I admit to being curious about why people who had never met a Jew in their lives wanted me dead. I was writing Red, White and Blue, my 1999 novel not just about the dementos, but about sane and decent Americans. As I reread part of the manuscript in my computer looking for a couple of quotes, I thought: “This is a terrific book. I’m so proud of it!” (See? It only took me seventeen years to get past my penchant for self-deprecation. Anyway, Red, White, and Blue, has two main characters:
If the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam had a one-night stand, guess who would have popped out nine months later? Charlie Blair, Special Agent, F.B.I. What an American!
Charlie’s from Wyoming, a Wasp brought up on a ranch. The other character, Lauren Miller, a reporter, is a Jewish New Yorker. Though they never discovered, the reader learns that they are actually distant cousins, descendants of a brother who hopped to train headed west (had to get out of town fast) and a sister who stayed in the East. Charlie has gone undercover in a well-armed, highly organized cabal of crazies. And Lauren travels to Wyoming to investigate (as it turns out) that very group. She observes
people can blab about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave till they’re blue in the face, but assimilated as she is, she suspects her fellow citizens, her sister Americans, believe that she, Lauren Deborah Miller, Jew, is not as authentic an American as, say, a librarian in Tennessee or a car salesman in Oregon – or a sociopath dribbling over The Turner Diaries in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. She wants to know why.
In my years of research and writing, I interviewed an FBI psychologist and Special Agents fighting radical right groups, a Wyoming state cop who investigated radical groups in his home state, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and scholars researching the various radical factions.
Wyoming has always sang out to me, and I’d spent a lot of time there over the years. But talking to a local sheriff, a naturalist, a member of the cattlemen’s Association, a realtor, salespeople, librarians, riding instructors, and workers in slow food joints gave me more than information. I got their manners, language, unsolicited political opinions, and (most of the time) great kindness.
The best complement I’ve ever gotten on any book came with Red, White and Blue. I was at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in the early 2000’s. A woman came up to me; she’d been brought up on a ranch in Montana. She said she bought the novel because she thought it would be funny, reading how a New Yorker messed up the West. Instead, she told me, she loved the book and added: “You really got us! How did you do that?” I shrugged: no idea. But looking back, I realize that during the writing, I became Lauren Miller and Charlie Blair.