A Manhunt That Bombed


“Working with law enforcement nationwide, the FBI always gets its man,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft when he learned that a rural North Carolina cop had stumbled across America’s most wanted fugitive, Eric Rudolph, who was caught in his home area while scavenging for food in a dumpster.

Of course, the FBI had nothing to do with Rudolph’s arrest. Its five-year manhunt was a total flop.

Rudolph is suspected of four bombings: The Atlanta Olympics bombing on July 27, 1996, which killed one person at the scene and a journalist racing to cover the explosions; two bombs blasted at an Atlanta abortion clinic on January 16, 1997, one at the clinic and a second in its parking lot; two bombs set off at an Atlanta gay lounge on February 21, 1997; and the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic January 29, 1998, which killed an off-duty police officer and badly injured a nurse. If convicted he faces death.

The Olympics bombing occurred a little more than a year after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and followed a string of other violent crimes. Among them was a 1996 shootout between Missouri state troopers and the Kehoe brothers, who had been on a murder spree in the Ozarks; and a spate of bank robberies by a masked gang of “revolutionaries” across the Midwest.

In each of these crimes, the perpetrators were alleged to adhere to a cult called Christian Identity, which holds that Jews, blacks, and other minorities are not real people, but rather a bad first copy by God when he made man, and should not be confused with the real people, who are white Anglo-Saxons. Neither the mainline Christian denominations nor the feds have ever taken Christian Identity seriously, the mainstream churches because they don’t want to seen as intruding upon the activities of other churches and because in places like the South and Southwest, denominations like the Baptists compete directly with Christian Identity for converts and don’t want to sour those attempts by aligning themselves with the hated federal government.

Law enforcement types don’t take Christian Identity seriously because they tenaciously adhere to the pursuit of psychological personality profiles, which almost always portray the suspected criminal as a “loner” who is “outside” society and inexplicably “acts out.” Thus, in the Oklahoma City bomb trial, the feds never pursued evidence provided by one of their own undercover agents that the bombing was a plot hatched in a Christian Identity encampment near the Ozarks called Elohim City. The undercover agent accompanied a group of men in casing the federal building that McVeigh subsequently blew up. And the feds ignored a previous attempt to blow up the same building by another group of Christian Identity adherents. When the defense sought to introduce this evidence into McVeigh’s trial, the judge blocked it.

Christian Identity is a remnant of American nativism, a subterranean form of politics organized around the fear of anything alien—rooting it out and throwing it out. It is aimed at closing down the borders. In certain respects, Rudolph may be America’s leading nativist criminal. But his capture is not without its ironies. Ashcroft himself is currently doing his best to revive nativist traditions in a witch hunt for Muslim men he can label as potential terrorists.

The attorney general’s dragnets, conspiracy prosecutions, and secret trials are all part of this administration’s efforts to revive a nativism based on a person’s looks, cultural background, and color. These people are to be labeled as potential terrorists and deported or imprisoned. The line separating the Justice Department and Christian Identity is a blurry one.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John