Almost exactly 20 years ago, Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City , killing dozens of innocent civilians including 19 babies and toddlers in the hope of triggering a race war that would overthrow the American government.
Instead, his act prompted only revulsion and put any thoughts of a radical right-wing revolution on indefinite hold.
Now Dylann Roof, the young white man who has been charged with killing nine black churchgoers at a Bible-study meeting in Charleston on Wednesday, has met with similar disgust and outrage – from the very people he seemed most anxious to impress.
“If starting a race war is what this kid is about, he did it in the worst possible way,” said Kirk Lyons, a prominent lawyer who has defended Ku Klux Klan members, supporters of the old southern Confederacy and a notorious Holocaust denier.
“I’m a Christian,” Lyons added. “I consider the congregants of black churches my fellow Christians. These are the last people you want to hurt.”
On far-right online comment forums, avowed white nationalists and white supremacists substantially agreed, worrying that the Charleston killings might become an excuse for the government they hate to arrest them, crack down on gun ownership and suppress public displays of the Confederate flag many of them revere.
“More bad news for nationalism, no matter his political beliefs,” one poster, using the name Defend Our Homeland , wrote on the white supremacist site Stormfront.
The available evidence suggests some stark differences between Roof, a troubled kid with no known history of affiliation with extremist groups, and McVeigh, a decorated army veteran who steeped himself in politics on the gun show circuit for more than two years, knew most people in the movement and planned the bombing over a period of months.
On Saturday an online manifesto , on a website created in February by a registrant who listed his or her name as Dylann Roof and which contained photographs of Roof posing with a gun and Confederate flags, was being investigated by the FBI and Charleston police.
The statement, the authorship of which was not confirmed, was filled with racial invective, especially against black people, and laid out plans to strike in Charleston, a city that was majority black at the time of the civil war and has remained at the centre of America’s tortured racial history since. But the document did not give any indication of a broader political agenda, dwelling instead on lines from the violent Japanese teenage rebellion movie Himizu and a belief that the author needed to act because nobody else would.
Lyons, who ran in circles only a remove or two away from McVeigh in the 1990s, said Roof had no profile in the movement.
“Nobody as far as I know knows anyting about this guy,” he told the Guardian. “He’s just one of those kids our generation has a bad habit of turning out.”
Related: Charleston shooting: Confederate flag at heart of growing political storm
What Roof and McVeigh have in common, however, is a backdrop of virulent anti-government rhetoric and the paranoid sense that the government is about to steal everyone’s guns, and with them their liberty.
McVeigh was a student of a revolutionary theory known at the time as “ leaderless resistance ”, which said that the best way to avoid infiltration by government informants was to act in small cells or alone. That concept has now become commonplace among readers of websites like Stormfront and Vanguard News Network. For many of them, lone-wolf attacks on blacks or Jews or government targets are little more than idle fantasy.
Whether Dylann Roof had a serious agenda or was just a deeply disturbed individual using the language of racial hatred to justify an irrational act, it is little mystery where he derived his ideas. News reports suggest Roof told either his friends or the police he meant to incite a race war – a term frequently thrown about online in response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missour i last year or in Baltimore in April . In the website manifesto, the author referenced the killing of Trayvon Martin , the black teenager from Florida who was shot by a neighbourhood watch leader three years ago.
A picture on Roof’s Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket with flags from apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia on the front – an association frequently made by advocates of an all-white America, or an all-white republic within its borders. The website containing the manifesto linked to his name was called The Last Rhodesian.
The green-white-green Rhodesian flag is also remarkably close to the flag of the Northwest Front , a group that dreams of a separatist state in the Pacific Northwest whose colours represent the green of the earth and the white of the people living on it. The author of the online manifesto, however, described the Front as “beyond stupid” because he or she didn’t want to have to leave his home state.
Multiple reports, from the Department of Homeland Security in Washington and the Southern Poverty Law Center have pointed to a sharp increase in radical rightwing hate groups over the past decade. Disenchanted veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have swelled their ranks, as did the recession of 2008-09 and the election of Barack Obama as the first black US president.
Many in the so-called Patriot movement identify as Christians, and the most radical belong to an overtly racist sect known as Christian Identity , which preaches that Adam was the father of the white race while blacks and Jews were the offspring of Eve coupling with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Such ideas, combined with the tormented racial history of the American South and the widespread availability of lethal weaponry, have put law enforcement agencies on alert for years.
Domestic extremists have killed more people than followers of al-Qaida or Isis since 2001, according to numerous studies, yet the danger from heavily armed white Americans has received nowhere near the same attention or resources. One reason for that is that law enforcement agencies see homegrown radicals with an inclination to commit violence as lacking either the skills or the resources to make their fantasies reality. Often, they talk too much and get caught.
It is an open question whether the FBI could have intercepted the website it is now investigating in time to thwart his plans. When domestic violence does break out, it reliably sparks panic in groups that skirt close to the wind in their rhetoric but do not want to be identified with acts of gratuitous violence.
‘An act of purposeful evil’
Related: Charleston shooting echoes a painful history of attacks on black churches
Ben Jones of the Sons of Confederate Veterans – a one-time actor who appeared on the TV show Dukes of Hazzard – wasted no time denouncing the Charleston killings as “an act of purposeful evil”. He added: “We must not allow the sickness of one demented individual to become that with which the media and our ‘politically correct’ opponents define us. We are the same good-hearted people that we were last week and last year.”
Whether Roof turns out to have been a lone wolf or just a loner – “well down the path of nuttiness”, in the words of Kirk Lyons – his actions have already activated the far-right’s propensity for paranoid thinking. The Charleston killings have spawned very similar conspiracy theories to those that circulated after the Oklahoma City bombing about government “false flag” involvement – the theory being that the federal government wanted an excuse to crack down on militias and pass more stringent gun laws.
One much-forwarded comment on Vanguard News Network this week read: “The whole thing smells of psyops.” Even Lyons said he detected a “Manchurian candidate-ness” to the attack on the Emanuel AME church.
“Where do these guys come from, all over-medicated and weird looking?” he said. “I’m just wondering what’s going on here … There’s a lot of people in the system that benefit from racial antagonism.
“I don’t know – I don’t have any evidence. But the conspiracy nut in me thinks there’s maybe something.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015