The First and Second Amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide extremists with access to guns and the right to shoot off their mouths.
So said Time magazine columnist Jack E. White, who called extremists "part of the American fabric. They're us, and that is what makes controlling them so difficult."
Participating in an Anti-Defamation League panel in San Francisco last week, White and other panelists stressed the difficulty of distinguishing between First Amendment rights of free expression and exchange of ideas, and criminal activity involving violence and discrimination.
"We're still grappling with that," said panelist Michael J. Yamaguchi, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. "It's why you see law enforcement officers stumbling into problems such as Ruby Ridge and Waco," he said, referring to the storming of militant holdouts by government officials.
Members of a militia, such as the Freemen — currently holed up in Jordan, Mont. — are not driven by the same urges that compel thugs to rob banks and hold up gas stations, said Yamaguchi.
"Law enforcers are slow to realize that [militia members] are not motivated by avarice or greed," he told nearly 100 people gathered at the Marines' Memorial Club, "but rather ideology."
But extremists' ideals do not conform to those of a democratic society, said the third panelist, John H. Bunzel, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Extremists do not share an allegiance to the civilizing process of conciliation, accommodation and compromise, Bunzel said. "They act as if it's one minute till midnight before the lights go out all over the American republic."
Some efforts to control individuals who defy the government have backfired.
"Militias were fostered by Waco," said Yamaguchi, referring to the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas three years ago.
Many Americans stubbornly cling to their right to bear arms, said White, who witnessed congressional proceedings leading to the April 24 signing of the anti-terrorist law.
"What has corrupted the debate about the anti-terrorist bill," he said, "is this undying Old West mentality that all of us ought to be armed and be able to settle our problems with violence."
Rhetoric, on the other hand, is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's weapon of choice, and Farrakhan has managed to sidestep the law, panelists said.
Yamaguchi said the justice department declined to investigate Farrakhan's 1996 Friendship Tour to 18 nations, some of which are friendly to terrorists.
"There's no law against American citizens going anywhere, including Cuba," said White.
As for the harsh words against the United States attributed to Farrakhan in the Iranian press, White added, "Shooting off his mouth is the right of every American."
Moreover, he added, "You can't be sure Farrakhan actually said the things he's reported to have said."