Speaking of white supremacists, remember these boys who did not make Kansas proud

Some of the materials Max McCoy accumulated while reporting on hate groups in Kansas. (Photo Illustration/Kansas Reflector)

First exhibit

Here is a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Topeka against one Jarrett William Smith, a private first class at Fort Riley who was sentenced in August to a minimum of 30 months in prison for distributing information on making bombs and napalm via social media.

The complaint is crisp and formal, with the name of the defendant in all caps. It is signed at the bottom in bold strokes by the FBI special agent who swore to particulars in the accompanying affidavit, and it brings the weight of the federal government against Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith had hoped to start a race war, Judge Daniel Crabtree noted at sentencing. Smith was a member of an obscure and largely online neo-Nazi organization called the Feuerkrieg (“firewar”) Division. Its founder is a 13-year-old Estonian boy who is below the age of prosecution in the European Union.

Jarrett William Smith in a Riley County Police Department photograph on the day of his arrest, Sept. 21, 2019. (Submitted by Riley County Police Department to Kansas Reflector)

“On March 27, 2019, the FBI received information regarding the Facebook user … JARRETT WILLIAM SMITH,” the affidavit in support of the complaint reads. “SMITH was reported to have disseminated guidance on how to construct Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and to have spoken about his desire to travel to Ukraine to fight with the Ukraine-based violent far-right paramilitary group, Azov Battalion.”

The Azov Battalion is a militia that, six years ago, became notorious for its neo-Nazi sympathies and adoption of symbols originally used by one of Hitler’s Panzer divisions. Because it accepts members from outside Ukraine, it has become a sort of foreign legion for far-right extremists from around the world. It has also been implicated by the United Nations in war crimes, including looting, torture and the targeting of civilians.

With an undercover FBI employee, Smith discussed violence intended to create chaos, ignite a race war and set the stage for a Nazi state. Among the targets were politicians, local news outlets and the headquarters of a major news network.

Smith had also been in encrypted social media contact with Timothy R. Wilson, the FBI said. Wilson died after a shootout with the FBI in March and had allegedly been planning to bomb a hospital in Missouri to stop its treatment of coronavirus patients. He had been under surveillance for months because of his anti-government beliefs and his “expressed racial and religious hatred,” the FBI said. Although he had amassed bomb-making material and had considered a police station, an elementary school, a mosque or a synagogue as targets, Wilson finally decided on the hospital in Belton, Missouri.

William Jarrett Smith’s defense attorney told the judge that Smith did not have the technical knowledge to carry out the bomb-making plans discussed in person with the undercover employee and on social media. He said Smith had suffered a lifetime of bullying because of a cleft lip and palate.

Second exhibit

Here is my notebook from the state trial of Terry Nichols in a district court at McAlester, Oklahoma, in March 2004. The notebook is eight inches high and four inches wide and is spiral bound at the top. No. 200, narrow ruled. It is from the Portage company of Akron, Ohio, and is the kind of notebook I’ve carried all of my professional career. This one is stained with water, or sweat, and the smeared notes are in blue ink that seems to bleed across the pages. The courtroom was packed and the air conditioning was on the fritz. The notebook carries no authority other than personal observation.

Nichols, who was then 48, had already been serving time at a federal supermax prison in Colorado for being an accomplice to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168. By the time of the Nichols trial, Timothy McVeigh had already been executed, by lethal injection at age 33, at the federal prison at Terre Haute.

Nichols, a Michigan native, had met McVeigh at basic training in Georgia, and later they were both stationed at Fort Riley.

They shared similar racist views and were fans of “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel that depicts the overthrow of the federal government and an apocalyptic race war in which all non-whites are exterminated. Nichols received a hardship discharge because of his failing marriage in 1989, and a few years later moved into a house at Herington, Kansas, about 40 miles south of Fort Riley.

The fertilizer and diesel fuel bomb that would be loaded into the back of a rented Ryder truck and detonated at Oklahoma City were mixed by Nichols and McVeigh at Geary Lake in Kansas.

Because a federal jury had deadlocked on the death penalty for Nichols, resulting in a life sentence, a grand jury was empaneled in Oklahoma to investigate the bombing. Although there were hopes other conspirators would be identified, after nearly two years Nichols was the only individual charged. He faced the death penalty for 161 counts of murder, including one count for an unborn child. He was already serving time for the deaths of eight law enforcement officers. The jury at McAlester convicted him on all charges, but during the penalty phase could not agree on death. Nichols was sentenced to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. He was then returned to the federal prison in Colorado.

Media representatives interview family members of Oklahoma City bombing victims outside the district courthouse in McAlester, Oklahoma, in March 2004. (Max McCoy file photo/Kansas Reflector)

My notes from the trial describe Nichols as “a sad man in a cheap suit.”

Nichols and Smith — and too many other disaffected young white men — were seduced by fascism. Extreme right-wing movements offer a ready balm for the painful cognitive dissonance suffered by those who believe that, by virtue of their race or gender or sexual orientation, they deserve better than what life has given them.

Unlike reality, these movements make a sort of sense. They come with a compelling but false backstory, smart uniforms, faux rituals and a lie that others — especially immigrants — are to blame for your misfortunes. These others, at various times, have been Jews, LGBTQ people, the Irish, Freemasons, women, Native Americans, Catholics, the Roma, Blacks. The “other” changes, but the lie never does.

This poison reaches even to the heart of Kansas. McVeigh and Nichols in 1995. Smith in 2019. There are others, filling my notebooks of covering various hate groups and movements in Kansas over the years, including a Garden City group called the Crusaders. And always, whether their twisted plans are realized or not, the promise of orgiastic violence beckons.

In her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag ponders why Nazi trappings have developed a cultish and often fetishistic following.

“Uniforms suggest fantasies of community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals which ‘say’ who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence,” Sontag writes. She concludes: “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”

The Nazis are sexier than the right, middle or left. Third Reich perfected the cult of death and their toxic lessons are now just a mouse click away, courtesy of frustrated 13-year-olds with an internet connection somewhere in Estonia.

Third exhibit

A small paper tag, branded “Ketepa,” which was once at the end of a string attached to single-serving teabag. The tea was Kenyan, dark and surprisingly strong. The tea was brewed at The African Shop, 911 W. Mary Street, an industrial part of Garden City, Kansas. The shop is a kind of old-fashioned general store for the 600 Somali refugees who came to Finney County for a new life after the horrors of civil war in their east African country — and because there were jobs at Tyson, the local meat-packing plant.

The African Shop in Garden City, Kansas, in 2016. (Max McCoy file photo/Kansas Reflector)

I drank the tea in October 2016 while interviewing 27-year-old Mursal Nameye, an employee of Tyson and one of the spokespersons for the Somali community. Mursal had been busy. Just days before, three Kansas men had been arrested by the FBI and charged in federal district court for plans to blow up an apartment complex, just down the street from the African Shop, where the Somalis had converted one of the apartments to a temporary mosque.

The men belonged to a militia group called the “Crusaders.” Two of them, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, both lived in Liberal. The third, Patrick Eugene Stein, lived near Dodge City.

The men had stockpiled ammunition and acquired hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer — the same stuff used in the Oklahoma City bombing — and had planned to detonate four car bombs around the apartment complex. Their goal was to kill as many of the Muslims who lived and worshipped there as possible.

“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” Stein had told an undercover agent, according to the criminal complaint.

He also referred to the Somali refugees as “cockroaches” and said: “When we go on operations there’s no leaving anyone (alive) behind, even if it’s a 1-year-old. I’m serious. I guarantee if I go on a mission those little f—-rs are going bye-bye.”

The attack was planned for Wednesday, Nov. 9 — the day after a presidential election Donald Trump was expected to lose.

At the African Shop, I asked Mursal what he would say to the men if he had the chance.

His answer was quick.

“What did we do to you?” he said. “Why would you love to kill us? You know, we’re just people like you. You need to understand, that out of more than a billion of Muslim people in the world, not even 1% do anything wrong. I would like to say, what did we do to you, that you want to hurt us?”

In April 2018, a jury declared all three accused men guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and to violate the civil rights of the Somali residents. They were sentenced last year to between 25 and 30 years in federal prison.

From left: Gavin Wright, Curtis Allen and Patrick Stein. (Sedgwick County Sheriffs Office via KCUR)

“The three discussed a wide range of targets in addition to (the apartment complex),” the FBI said in a statement after the sentencing, “including residences, places of worship, local public officials, landlords who rented to Muslims, and even organizations providing assistance to Muslim refugees.”

Over the strong tea at the African Shop, Mursal told me that he could not have imagined that, having escaped the bombings and the bloodshed of his horrific childhood in Somali, he would find people in America who plotted to engage in the same activity.

He was careful to note the outpouring of support in Garden City for the Somali community since the plot had been thwarted, including a candlelight vigil and many messages of peace. Still, the question remained: Why did these men want to kill those who looked and prayed like him?

There was no rational answer.

Hate has a long history, and it is fed by lies.

Whether it’s “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a vicious literary hoax that contributed to the Holocaust, or a hate-filled social media account originating in a country that most Americans can’t find on a map, the seeds of hate are sown in the shadows. It takes root in the hearts and minds of vulnerable individuals looking for something to believe in. It is an abstract at first, misplaced in time and place, and then becomes increasingly dangerous as the dehumanized “others” and their children are targeted ever closer to home.

I told Mursal that I was sorry. Not all Kansans felt the way these three men did, I said. And as we sat drinking our tea, I realized that the only real answer for hate may begin by sitting down, sharing a cup of something warm, and sharing our stories.