Commentary: Keeping an eye on extremists

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Three hours into our conversation I ask to see the damage.

I want to see what a cardboard parcel loaded with explosives does to the person who carefully slits the clear packing tape with scissors and reaches inside just as plate glass begins to shatter and shrapnel sprays.

So Don Logan loosens his shirt cuff, tugs his suit jacket back and bends his forearm across the table to show the mottled skin, a circular patch several inches wide. Grafted skin from his thigh has replaced what the bomb blew off down to the bone, tissue that landed on his Scottsdale, Ariz. office wall in February 2004. And that was just Logan's arm. Other surgeries stitched his hand back together.

Logan is an anomaly, according federal investigators. People don't survive opening mail bombs like the one carefully addressed to him. His head could have been taken off. Or, if he'd held the box at another angle, the gaping hole left in the counter would have been in his chest.

In a light moment, Logan laughs that because he's African American, the darker skin tone hides some of the scarring.

I want to say, "I'm sorry." And not just because I've been soaking up his harrowing tale, and that it took five years for two men to be indicted in the bombing.

What I really want to apologize for is that I had covered his alleged would-be assassins more than 20 years ago, as a newbie reporter, and I regarded them as little more than bumbling media hounds. They were wing nut racists who liked attention, and not much more.

I was wrong.

Decades before they moved to Phoenix, the accused - twin brothers Daniel and Dennis Mahon - lived in the Kansas City area. Dennis made a name for himself by proposing a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored program for a local cable access channel, spurring efforts by the city council to prevent it and well-publicized squabbles about free speech.

Free speech won. But so did buffoonery. Dennis, the extrovert of the Brothers Mahon, attempted one show. His cohort at the time, J. Allen Moran, later admitted that Mahon's "Klan" group consisted simply of the two of them. And he grew tired of Mahon's antics and quit.

We now know that Dennis Mahon had ties to some of the nation's most notorious white supremacists and anti-Semites. But years ago, part of what made it hard to take him seriously as a true menace was that he seemed so intent on publicity, even appearing on "Oprah." For a lot of people like him, media exposure appears to be an end in itself. And he repeatedly ran for public office on openly white-supremacists platforms. Do people bent on murder do that? I remember many an argument in the newsroom about whether it was right to give people like Dennis Mahon any coverage at all. It only encourages them, some held. It helps them recruit. Put a microphone in front of a guy calling himself an imperial dragon, and pretty soon he has a Klan Klavern, or the impression of one. Reporters can't jump every time someone comes looking for a megaphone for his white supremacist views.

And yet to ignore them also exposes society - and people like Don Logan - to potential harm. Especially now, when the nation is in a difficult period. Reports by watchdog agencies cite a spike in hate group activity spurred by the election of Barack Obama, the growing Hispanic population and the stagnant economy.

The anti-government fanatics, militias, hardcore racists, would-be border vigilantes, and all manner of other hoarders of guns 'n' ammo are coming out of the woodwork. Some of them are preening for the cameras. But who among them are truly ready to act on their veiled threats? Well, bring out the crystal ball.

What still vexes Don Logan is the question, why him? Logan had been mentioned in Phoenix media as the city's diversity and dialogue director. He was a symbolic yet impersonal target, which tends to be the case with terrorists.

Another thing Logan found strange was how ordinary and unremarkable the Mahons were. The first time Logan faced them in pre-trial proceedings he was shocked at how "frail and passive" they appeared.

As the Mahons' trial proceeds early next year, we might learn about what clues to look for when sifting domestic terrorists from the garden-variety wing nuts. Let's start with this: When people preach hate, and associate with violent organizations, take them at their word.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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