article

The Crazy Gunman Who Attacked the Pentagon

John Patrick Bedell is the latest self-styled suicidal warrior for the extreme anti-government movement that has exploded since Obama’s inauguration, says Wingnuts author John Avlon.

03.05.10 1:38 PM ET

The parents of John Patrick Bedell, the man who shot two police officers at the Pentagon on Thursday, had warned police about their son. Bedell’s parents reported their son missing on January 4 and told police that they were worried he had purchased a gun after reading an email he had written. Bedell then returned to his parents on January 18 and told them “not to ask any questions,” before disappearing again shortly. It is believed that he set off on the cross-country journey that ended with his death on Friday morning. Wingnuts author John Avlon on the latest self-styled suicidal warrior for the extreme anti-government movement that has exploded since Obama’s inauguration.

John Patrick Bedell’s attack on the Pentagon on Thursday night bears all the heraldry of a wingnut vigilante.

In a bizarre firefight at the Pentagon Metro stop outside Washington D.C., the 36-year old Bedell began shooting at two guards armed with twin 9 mm semiautomatic weapons. The guards were wounded. Bedell was killed in a hail of bullets.

In his online musings that have already been made public, the gunman refers to the “demolition” of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a key assertion of 9/11 “Truther” conspiracy theories. In the Truthers’ view, the twin towers were brought down by implanted explosives placed there by government agents representing the “new world order”—not al Qaeda-hijacked airplanes.

Bedell seems to be less connected to right-wing politics than what I call “fright wing” politics—the murky ground beyond left and right where conspiracy theories reside.

In other places, Bedell refers to the “1963 Coup,” a JFK assassination conspiracy theory that also implicates the “new world order” in the president’s death that “maintains itself in power through the global drug trade, financial corruption, and murder.” Conspiracy theories surrounding the 1991 death of Col. James E. Sabow—ruled a suicide but claimed by conspiracists as a murder to cover up the colonel’s knowledge of alleged drug smuggling by the CIA—are also cited. Bedell also appears to associate himself with the extreme edge of “End the Fed” efforts, the work of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, and calls for a return to constitutional purity, specifically with regard to states’ rights.

All these are themes and issues familiar to trackers of the anti-government Hatriot movement—those people who believe it is patriotic to hate our government—and its variously virulent conspiracy theorist tributaries.

It also needs to be said that Bedell seems to have been both intelligent—he claims to have studied biochemistry and electrical engineering—and more than a little off his rocker.

Any reflexive media attempts to tie the shooter to the Tea Party movement should be regarded as totally unfounded. He appears to have been more focused on his hatred of former Vice President Dick Cheney than President Barack Obama. Bedell seems to be less connected to right-wing politics than what I call “fright wing” politics—the murky ground beyond left and right where conspiracy theories reside.

It’s important to view this attack in the context of other recent incidents, such as the suicide attack of Andrew Joseph Stack, who took the wingnut tributary of tax protests to a new level by flying his airplane into IRS offices in Austin, Texas, late last month.

Also last month, a Massachusetts man named Gregory Girard was arrested in possession of an extensive weapons cache, including hand grenade devices. His wife reported that she had become afraid to come home after he started spouting off statements like “It’s fine to shoot people in the head because traitors deserve it.” Police reported that Girard warned that “martial law” would soon be imposed by the government.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 Pages. Beast Books. $15.95.

The death toll adds to a rash of fright-wing motivated murders last spring:

• On April 4, 2009, three Pittsburgh police officers were shot and killed by Richard Andrew Poplawski, wearing body armor and wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Poplawski was a frequent visitor to fright-wing guru Alex Jones’ Web sites and a poster on the white supremacist Stormfront.org, expressing fears that America is controlled by a cabal of Jews, that U.S. soldiers may soon be used against American citizens, and that a ban on guns would soon be imposed.

• On April 25, 2009, Joshua Cartwright, a Florida national guardsman, shot and killed two Florida sheriff’s deputies as the officers attempted to arrest Cartwright on domestic violence charges. In the police report, Cartwright’s wife said he “believed that the US Government was conspiring against him. She said he had been severely disturbed that Barack Obama had been elected President.”

• On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into a Wichita, Kansas, church and shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, who as part of his practice performed late-term abortions. Roeder was a member of the Freemen movement in the 1990s, which asserted its members were “sovereign citizens” not subject to federal law, while African-Americans were “14th amendment citizens.” In 1996, Roeder had been pulled over and found to have a pound of gunpowder attached to a nine-volt battery and a switch, as well as blasting caps and bullets. The prosecutor in the case described him—accurately, as it turned out—as a “substantial threat to public safety.”

• On June 10, 2009, James von Brunn, an 88-year-old neo-Nazi, walked into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., killed a 40-year-old African-American security guard, Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, and wounded several others. Von Brunn had previously served six years in prison for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve at gunpoint. A note left in his car read, “You want my weapons, this is how you’ll get them…the Holocaust is a lie…Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to. Jews captured America’s money. Jews control the mass media.”

Earlier this week, the invaluable Southern Poverty Law Center released a new report that detailed the dramatic increase in militia and so-called Patriot groups over the first year of the Obama administration. Among its findings was the establishment of 363 new Patriot groups last year alone. “Militias—the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement—were a major part of the increase, growing from 42 militias in 2008 to 127 in 2009,” the center found.

As more information comes in, it appears that Bedell is the latest self-styled suicidal warrior for the extreme anti-government movement that has exploded since President Obama’s inauguration. It is a reminder of the real costs that come with the paranoid conspiracy theories that are peddled on the edges of the Internet and sometimes encouraged by hyper-partisan media outlets.

Hate is a cheap and easy recruiting tool—but hate ultimately leads to violence.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.