The Carolinas’ Homegrown Terrorists

What is it about the Carolinas that draws and produces domestic extremists?
El Paso County, Colo., Sheriff's Office

It’s still the weirdest story assignment of my career.

It was fall 1999, when Y2K was the most feared Doomsday Scenario in American life. (Never such innocence again.) The then-metro editor at the Observer, where I’d worked for less than a year, thought it’d be a swell idea to send me deep into the North Carolina mountains to try to track down survivalists who had stocked up on food and other supplies and taken to the hills to ride out the calamity. It’d be great if I could find some and talk with them, the editor thought.

I wasn’t hopeful—finding reclusive paranoiacs, and inducing them to consent to on-the-record interviews, struck me as a bit of a long shot—but I went anyway. For two days, I drove roller-coaster two-lane highways that wound through the mountains west of Asheville, stopping at pawn shops, roadside flea markets, police departments, and convenience stores. I found no one who fit the profile. But I did find George.

George was an older fellow, white-haired and rail-thin, who operated one of the few businesses open on a weekday in downtown Andrews, a town of about 1,700 in the westernmost tip of the state. It was a health food store. (In Andrews?) The shelves were minimally stocked. George was the only one there. I introduced myself and explained what I was doing. He regarded me warily and asked me if I really wanted to know the truth. Against my better judgment, I said yes.

Over the next 10 minutes, George unfurled the outline of the Zionist Banking Conspiracy, of which he said I was an unwitting accomplice. He insisted I take with me copies of The Spotlight, the weekly publication of the conspiracy-theorist right-wing Liberty Lobby, which he had stacked on the counter near the door. I thanked George and hauled ass out of Andrews.

It was only when I got back to the office and consulted the archive that I realized whom I’d encountered: George Nordmann. He had achieved a brief moment in the public eye in July 1998, when Eric Rudolph—on the run after bombing the Olympic Park in Atlanta, a gay nightclub, and two abortion clinics—approached him for food and supplies. Nordmann told the FBI that he at first helped Rudolph, a longtime friend, but then changed his mind. Rudolph ended up stealing his truck and $75 worth of food, paying for all of it with five $100 bills he left on Nordmann’s table at home. Nordmann waited two days before telling authorities about Rudolph’s visit. He was not charged.

Nordmann died in 2008. Rudolph was captured behind a grocery store in Murphy, about 15 miles from Andrews, in 2003. He’s now serving a life sentence at a federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, less than an hour’s drive from Colorado Springs, where on Friday a man with guns shot 12 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“Abortion is the vomitorium of modernity,” Rudolph told the court during his sentencing in 2005, “and the abortionist is the attendant who helps the bloated partiers disgorge themselves so they can return to the rotten feast of materialism and self-indulgence.”

We probably won’t get as precise an expression of intent from Robert Lewis Dear as we did from Eric Rudolph; few terrorists are so articulate. Was Dear’s post-arrest utterance of “no more baby parts” a clear indicator of motive or the babblings of an easily manipulated nutball? We may never know, just as we may never be able to discern just why so many recent domestic terrorists hail from the Carolinas.

William Saletan wrote about it in a piece Slate published this morning (and that’s gone at least semi-viral since):

This week’s carnage in Colorado brings the death toll from North Carolinian terrorists, including Eric Rudolph, to eight. That’s just one shy of the nine people murdered in Charleston. Throw in the work of a few lesser miscreants, and you’re looking at roughly 20 casualties inflicted by Carolina extremists.

That doesn’t make the Christian states of North and South Carolina anywhere near as dangerous as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But it does make you wonder why, as we close our doors to refugees who have done us no harm, we pay so little attention to our enemies within.

Saletan’s aiming to be deliberately provocative here, likening the good ol’ Cackalackies to the lands of ISIS, but he has a point. What is it about North and South Carolina that seems to draw, and produce, domestic extremists?

Economic turmoil? Check, sort of; the states’ traditional agricultural and industrial bases are gutted. But that’s true of plenty of other states, even in the South. The growing physical and cultural disconnect between country and city, especially in North Carolina? Maybe; you can move from one world in downtown Asheville, for instance, to another in rural Buncombe County in about 15 minutes, and neither touches the other (or would want to). A predisposition to acts of violence? Nothing you wouldn’t find in Mississippi, or Texas, or Pennsylvania.

They’re questions worth asking and finding some answers to. But since 9/11, the definition of “terrorist” has undergone an effective change in the United States; in reviewing news stories about Rudolph, it was almost poignant to see how unashamedly and clearly he was labeled as what he was.

But to much of the country, “terrorist” now means “Muslim jihadist,” which wouldn’t matter so much if national policy didn’t reflect the switch as well. The last Department of Homeland Security analyst who published an analysis of the threat of right-wing American extremism, Daryl Johnson, left the agency in 2010 after DHS dissolved his team amid protests by conservatives that the government was “stigmatizing” them.

Categories: The Buzz