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What is the Militia Movement?

Adapted from Berlet & Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort

The militias are a vigilante force and, like many before them throughout
U.S. history, militia members saw themselves as heroes-defending God
and country, kith and kin, hearth and home, family and faith. That these
were clichés only made the force of the narrative more familiar
and powerful. They compared themselves to the brave Minutemen holding
the line at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge. They spoke of betrayal
in high places and of traitors walking the sacred halls of Congress.
They feared plots, so they made plans.


Adapted from Berlet & Lyons, "Militia Nation," The Progressive Magazine

This coalescence of the militias out of the patriot movement created a potential for violent assaults against certain targeted scapegoats: federal officials and law-enforcement officers, abortion providers and their pro-choice supporters, environmentalists, people of color, immigrants, welfare recipients, gays and lesbians, and Jews.

Militia-like organizations have existed within the right for many yearsin the form of Ku Klux Klan klaverns, the Order cell (out of Aryan Nations), and the Posse Comitatus. But today's citizens' militias, which have sprung up across the country over the last three years, represent a new and ominous development within the U.S. rightwing.

But we need to be very careful that we describe the militia phenomenon accurately. Otherwise, we will not blunt the threat, and we may only aid those in this country who are all too eager to curtail our civil liberties.

The first point to underscore about the militias is that not all militia members are racists and anti-Semites. While some militias clearly have emerged, especially in the Pacific Northwest, from old race-hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nations, and while the grievances of the militia movement as a whole are rooted in white-supremacist and antiSemitic conspiracy theories, many militia members do not appear to be consciously drawn to the militia movement on the strength of these issues. Instead, at least consciously, they focus on blaming a caricature of the government for all the specific topical issues that stick in their craw.

To stereotype every armed militia member as a Nazi terrorist not only increases polarization in an already divided nation; it also lumps together persons with unconscious garden-variety prejudice and the demagogues and professional race-hate organizers.

Similarly, it would be wrong to assume, as some in the media have, that all members of the armed militias are marginal individuals on the fringes of society who have no connection to mainstream politics. In this view, there are always a number of fragile people who are subject to political hysteria. When they snap, they adopt an increasingly paranoid style and make militant and unreasonable demands. But this "crackpot" theory is not an accurate picture of everyone in the militia movement; it dismisses out of hand every political grievance they have, and it denies the social roots of the militia movement.

Nor would it be wise to accept the view of the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, which see the militia movements as the creation of outside agitators who comprise a crafty core of criminal cadre at the epicenter of the movement. These leaders, the theory goes, use the movement as a front to hide their plans for violent armed revolution. Advocates of this view conclude that widespread bugging and infiltration are needed to penetrate to the core of the movement, expose the criminal cadre, and restore order. The larger movement, they claim, will then collapse without the manipulators to urge them to press their grievances, which were never real to begin with.

The problem with these interpretations is that some of the grievances are real. We need to remember that the growth of the militias is a social byproduct, coming on the heels both of economic hardship and the partial erosion of traditional structures of white male heterosexual privilege. It is at times of economic dislocation and social upheaval that the right has grown dramatically throughout our history. Indeed, the most famous militia movement in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan, arose as a citizens' militia during the turmoil of Reconstruction.


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Apocalyptic Conspiracy Theories & the Militias

The armed militia movement formed as the militant wing of the patriot movement following the government's excessive use of force against the Weaver family in Idaho and the Branch Davidians in Texas. Patriots and militia members have an anti-government agenda laced with paranoid-sounding conspiracist theories, many of which echo apocalyptic millenialism of Christian fundamentalists.

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