A couple of years before the World Trade Center attacks, Jon Ronson, a mild-mannered young journalist in Britain, decided to do a profile of a Muslim fundamentalist named Omar Bakri Mohammed, who called himself “Osama bin Laden’s man in London.” Hoping to counter the “lies” in the “Jewish-controlled media,” Omar Bakri invited Ronson to follow him around in his daily life, telling him “I am actually very nice.”

Ronson asked, “Are you?”

“Oh, yes,” Bakri replied. “I am delightful.”

In fact, it’s Ronson who turns out to be so. I’ve never read such a delightful book on such a serious and important topic. Somehow he’s written a warm and humane account of some of the most objectionable people on the planet. And he’s got a lot of insight into their picture of us–and our picture of “them.”

The British tabloids were happy to exploit Omar Bakri’s claims to fame. The Daily Mail ran a photo of him on page two a few years ago with the headline, “Is This the Most Dangerous Man in Britain?” The paper was reporting on a 1997 rally that Bakri held in Trafalgar Square, attended by 5,000 people–including Ronson, who summarized Bakri’s speech describing Britain should the Muslims take control: “He who practiced homosexuality, adultery, fornication, or bestiality would be stoned to death, or thrown from the highest mountain. Christmas decorations and store-window dummies would be outlawed…. Pictures of ladies’ legs on pantyhose packaging would be banned. We would still be able to purchase pantyhose, but they would be advertised simply with the word ‘pantyhose.'”

And of course the Spice Girls would be illegal.

Soon afterward, Omar Bakri welcomed Ronson to his home and played with his baby daughter for the benefit of the reporter. He told Ronson his daughter’s name translates as “the Black Flag of Islam.” He also told Ronson his goal was to rally Britain’s Muslims to overthrow its democracy and establish a fundamentalist Muslim state.

After following Bakri around for months, Ronson finally got the payoff a hard-working journalist dreams of: an invitation to a secret jihad training camp. It was not in Afghanistan but rather in a place outside London called Crawley, near Gatwick airport. It turned out to be a disappointment: merely a gym where young men lifted weights and hit punching bags. Here Omar introduces Ronson to the fighters in training–and announces that “he is a Jew.” Ronson had told Omar Bakri he was not Jewish. It’s a tense moment:

“Are you really a Jew?” someone asked.

“Surely it is better to be a Jew than an atheist?” Ronson replies.

The answer is chilling: “No, it isn’t.”

Then Omar Bakri lectures Ronson in front of his followers. “I am not offended that you are a Jew…. What offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate…that is the worst thing of all. Be a Jew!” This is not exactly the message he expected at a jihad training camp, but it is the kind of surprise that keeps happening to Ronson in his relations with extremists.

The climax of Omar Bakri’s Trafalgar Square rally, where Ronson begins his story, was supposed to be the release of thousands of black balloons, each carrying a card calling on Muslims to make war on Britain. But when the balloons were released, they failed to rise to the sky. It turned out the cards were too heavy. Some of Omar’s lieutenants were able to launch balloons by removing the cards, but that meant the message was left on the ground. “The last thing I saw was one young man, his face covered by a scarf, defeatedly kicking a listless black balloon and stomping off.”

It’s a potent image of Ronson’s central theme: Extremists who make frightening threats can also be simply ludicrous, and quite harmless. That seemed to be the case with Omar Bakri.

September 11 makes Ronson’s thesis problematic, but he knows it. Ronson takes up the problem in an introduction written shortly after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, when Omar Bakri has been arrested by the British authorities for making inflammatory statements–calling for a fatwa against President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, for instance, for supporting the US war in Afghanistan. Omar Bakri tells Ronson, “This is so terrible. The police say they may deport me. Why are people linking me with bin Laden? I do not know the man. I have never met him. Why do people say I am bin Laden’s man in Great Britain?”

“Because you’ve been calling yourself bin Laden’s man in Great Britain for many years.”

       “Oh Jon!” said Omar. “Why don’t people believe me when I tell them that I am just a harmless clown?”

In fact, Ronson gives readers a lot of evidence that Bakri is indeed a harmless clown. Does that mean his reporting about terrorism is too ironic and lighthearted? Those who criticize him on this ground forget that Omar Bakri is not Osama bin Laden. Omar Bakri didn’t have anything to do with the September 11 attacks, as far as we know, although afterward he told the Daily Mail that he found them “exciting.” There is also little public evidence that Bakri was “bin Laden’s man in London.” That claim seems to be an expression of Bakri’s quest for celebrity–a quest hardly unique to Muslim extremists. The only evidence of a tie between the two is the fact that Bakri released statements to the British press from bin Laden after the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

While Ronson portrays Omar Bakri as a buffoon, he doesn’t back away from the inflammatory statements his subject made: Bakri called for the assassinations of John Major and Tony Blair, he called for reinstating the fatwa on Salman Rushdie after Iran lifted it and he claims to have recruited fighters for Afghanistan. It’s vicious stuff, but much of it is also the kind of advocacy that is protected as free speech in both Britain and the United States.

Ronson’s portrayal of this Muslim fundamentalist as a comic figure rather than a frightening one is part of his larger project: to demystify the people we call “extremists,” to de-demonize the demons. His method consisted of spending time with a variety of members of fringe groups–the KKK, neo-Nazis, Christian separatists–as a way of understanding their thinking.

This method has been criticized not only on the ground that Ronson is too ironic and flip in his portrayal of Muslim fundamentalism but also because he may be stepping over the line between journalist and participant, becoming a near-accomplice. Ronson himself worried about that, especially when he rode in Omar Bakri’s car to deliver to the bank funds raised for the radical Palestinian group Hamas. Along the way Bakri stopped to do an errand and asked Ronson to guard the money–several thousand pounds. The request caused a crisis for Ronson: “What the hell was I doing, guarding money that would be used to kill the Jews?” he writes. “And then I understood that I had to take the money. I had to reach into the car, grab [the money], and make a run for it. That was my responsibility, my duty…. But I didn’t do it, of course. I just stood there. And then…Omar returned, thanked me for my help, and took the money to the bank.”

I don’t think it’s fair to fault Ronson here. If he had learned that terrorists were planning to fly planes into the World Trade Center, he’d have a moral obligation to report that to the authorities–but there is no requirement that he act to prevent the subject of his story from depositing funds in a bank, even if the purpose is objectionable: Hamas was a legal organization, after all.

Not all of Ronson’s extremists are as amusing as Omar Bakri. He hangs out for a while with the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan–who he says “reminded me of Woody Allen”; he spends time with Ian Paisley, long-time leader of Northern Ireland’s violent Protestants; and he meets some New World Order conspiracy theorists, who have a feverish plan to penetrate the Bilderberg Group meeting of global financiers.

Perhaps the most serious case in point, because so much later “extremism” harks back to it as a touchstone, is that of Rachel Weaver. She is the daughter of Randy and Vicki Weaver of the Ruby Ridge bloodbath of 1992. Rachel was 18 when she invited Ronson to shoot guns in her backyard in Montana, but she was only 12 when US marshals shot her 14-year-old brother Sammy in the back and then shot her mother, Vicki, in the head while Vicki stood in the doorway of their hilltop cabin in Idaho, holding her 10-month-old daughter, Elisheba, in her arms. Rachel’s mother dropped dead at her feet. “Dad picked Elisheba up off from underneath Mom and handed her to me,” Rachel told Ronson. “She had blood and stuff all over her head, and we were afraid she’d been shot too, but she was OK. It was just Mom’s blood. Dad brought Mom in and put her on the kitchen floor.” They stayed holed up in the cabin for another week, surrounded by federal agents, who had come looking for her father on a weapons charge. “I remember having to crawl through Mom’s blood every time I needed to go into the kitchen to get food.” Randy Weaver ended the standoff by surrendering, and after that he triumphed over the government in his trial. The United States paid Rachel and her two sisters $1 million each in damages.

The Ruby Ridge story illuminates a complex issue about how “extremists” are identified and defined in our political culture. Randy Weaver is a former Green Beret who’d moved his family to a remote hilltop in Idaho in the early 1980s to get away from the secret clique of international bankers who ruled the world. He had no terrorist plans; he just wanted to be left alone. He did go to a nearby Aryan Nations summer camp, but he got kicked out for smuggling in beer. And he also had political differences with the neo-Nazis. As Ronson explains it, “The neo-Nazis blamed the Jews exclusively, whereas Randy felt that focusing antipathy onto a single race was a mistake. He did not consider himself to be a white supremacist. He was a separatist. This may sound pedantic, but it was not pedantic to him.”

Then a guy asked Randy to saw off a shotgun for him, which Randy did, even though that was illegal. The guy turned out to be an undercover informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF offered Randy a choice: Go to work for the bureau spying on the Aryan Nations, or go to jail for the illegal shotgun. He didn’t want to do either and decided just to go back to his hilltop cabin. Ronson says, “They buried their heads in the sand.” Eventually the government brought in an armed military force of 400 and sealed off a twenty-square-mile area around their cabin at a cost of a million dollars a day.

Ronson zeroes in on one key fact about the day Randy Weaver surrendered: “The very first thing he yelled to the outside world, having been under siege for a week, was not ‘They killed Vicki! They killed my bride!’ (That was the second thing he yelled.) It was not ‘I’ve been shot too!’ (That was the third thing he yelled.) The first thing he yelled was, ‘Why is the radio calling me a white supremacist when those are not my views?'”

Ronson juxtaposes Randy Weaver’s insistence on ideological accuracy with his portrayal by the mainstream media–in particular, by Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect. The panel that day included Nadine Strossen of the ACLU and Garry Marshall, creator of Mork and Mindy and director of Pretty Woman. The discussion took place in the immediate aftermath of the incident at Ruby Ridge:

BILL MAHER: He was in Aryan Nations. Come on. Oh, boo hoo!
NADINE STROSSEN: Belonging to Aryan Nations is not a crime. That’s his right.
BM: They shot [Weaver’s] dog in the back. Can you believe that, Garry? Oh, man, that’s a Canine American! He has his rights!
AUDIENCE: (laugh.)
GARRY MARSHALL: That was the worst thing that happened!
AUDIENCE: (laugh.)
NS: He wasn’t causing any danger to anyone.
BM: If you’re bringing up your kids in Aryan Nations you are causing danger because you’re spawning hate in America.
AUDIENCE: (Applause.)

It’s enough to make you hate Bill Maher forever and write a check to the ACLU immediately.

After the trial, the remains of Weaver’s cabin at Ruby Ridge became a pilgrimage site for enemies of the New World Order, and one of the pilgrims who visited was Timothy McVeigh. A few months later he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. It housed the offices of the ATF.

Now the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith says Randy Weaver has become a hero for anti-Semites. Gail Gans, the ADL’s chief researcher on anti-Semitism in the American heartland, told Ronson that anti-Semites believe the attack on Weaver and his family came from the “New World Order,” which, according to the ADL, is a code word for “International Jewish Conspiracy.” She said the ADL had determined that Randy Weaver himself was “an extremist.” She told Ronson she was “sad that the people in charge didn’t make it stop before it started.” The people in charge? “I mean Randy Weaver,” she said. But Randy Weaver wasn’t in charge–all he did was go back to his cabin with his family.

Gans continued: “Randy Weaver and his friends see themselves as the only stand-up guys against the New World Order”–that code word for Jews. “And when you stand up against the New World Order, bad things happen to you, and now you have Randy Weaver as a martyr.”

Ronson concedes that “Randy Weaver could have surrendered–I would have. He did attend Aryan Nations–I wouldn’t have.” He also observes that “the ADL has the last word on who is an anti-Semite and who is not.” But when Ronson asks Rachel Weaver whether her family were white supremacists or anti-Semites back in 1992, she says, “No way! We had nothing against Jews…. We never felt that the white race was supreme to all others.” Ronson believes her–and makes a strong case that we should, too. He concludes that the label “extremist” is often abused, and that some of the people so labeled are indeed more like us than they are like our mental picture of “them.”

Ronson found on his sojourns with those we consider “fringe” that despite their doctrinal differences, they had one strand of thinking in common: They all believe the world is ruled by a secret, incredibly powerful but tiny elite that controls governments, financial institutions and, of course, Hollywood and the media.

Indeed, the many different extremist groups hold different versions of one specific idea about the rulers of the world–that they meet with presidents and prime ministers every year at a secret site in the woods where they put on strange costumes and make burnt offerings. At first this seems like another ludicrous element of their belief system, but readers of this magazine may realize that it’s all true. There is such a place, and it’s called the Bohemian Grove. It’s in Northern California, and every summer corporate execs and government officials gather there for secret all-male fun and frolic, and also to listen to Henry Kissinger.

Ronson knows what he has to do: He infiltrates the Bohemian Grove, along with a right-wing talk-show host from Texas. Their method is simple: They dress in preppy outfits and simply walk past the security guards with a friendly, ruling-class sort of wave. Sure enough, George Bush Sr. is scheduled to appear, Dick Cheney is on the guest list and after a lot of drinking, the assembled men put on colorful robes for a torchlight procession culminating in the lighting of a pyre at the foot of a statue of an owl. It’s a ceremony they call “the cremation of care,” where they symbolically attack the tedium of daily life. The evening ends with the world’s elite singing in unison “When the Saints Go Marching In,” followed by widespread pissing against the redwoods. Ronson, true to his journalistic method, joined in. Again he pushes readers to ask, Who is reasonable, and who is ludicrous? Who is “us,” and who is “them”?