Originally created 12/15/03

'Strange' incidents in S.C. serve as reminders of domestic threats



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart, less than two days removed from one of the most ferocious standoffs he had ever seen, was worried when he arrived at last week's Cabinet meeting. He reminded Gov. Mark Sanford and others what a strange few months it has been.

South Carolina was the only state to have a ricin threat when a vial of the deadly poison was found in a Greenville post office in October. A week later, prisoners at Lee Correctional Institution rioted, injuring a guard. Then a week ago, a family that may have militia connections ended up in a standoff with police and two Abbeville County law officers were killed.

It's a not-so-subtle reminder that with so many people preoccupied by international terrorism, the biggest threats in a small, rural state such as South Carolina often come from our own neighbors, said Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina.

He isn't surprised events such as the ricin threat, which authorities think might be linked to anger over new federal trucking regulations, and the Abbeville violence, which authorities say started with a dispute over a state road widening project, can happen here.

"People are accustomed to dealing with people with similar cultural values," Deflem said. "As soon as something happens that could change those values, they feel threatened."

Abbeville County is similar to many places in South Carolina, but it has its own unique history as a hotbed for distrust of the government.

Local historians like to point out one of the first meetings on whether South Carolina should leave the United States happened on what is now called Secession Hill in November 1860. And Confederate President Jefferson Davis held his last Cabinet meeting just down the road at the Burt Stark Mansion.

The League of the South, a group that wants a "sovereign State of South Carolina" and has been labeled a Confederate hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, keeps a state and Confederate flag atop a pole on the edge of Abbeville. The group also held a conference there in July.

It's not too surprising that independent streak continues, said Eddie Gilmer, who installs pools, spas and fireplaces and has lived in Abbeville all his life.

"We have that breed of people here who believe no one can tell them anything," said Gilmer, 54. "But we have many people who understand that the world has changed."

Protecting a small state such as South Carolina is a unique challenge, said Stewart, who also is the state's homeland security chief.

He and his agents have to keep the state safe from international terrorists but can't compromise preparation for standoffs, prison riots and other threats.

Deflem said that kind of readiness is important in South Carolina, which could be an enticing target for domestic terrorists, whose goals are similar to those of international terrorists: to shock the country and bring publicity to their beliefs.

The professor used the analogy of how when most Americans think of France they think of Paris, just like when most foreigners think of the United States, they think of New York City or Washington, D.C. But domestic terrorists know striking in the heartland or in rural areas can decimate a country with agrarian roots.

"It's no coincidence domestic terrorists picked Oklahoma City right in the middle of the U.S.," Deflem said, referring to the April 1995 bombing. "Places like that symbolize America to a lot of people in the country."