Militia NationBy Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
Reprinted from the Progressive Magazine
We have been studying the armed militias with a group of more than 100 analysts and reporters for many months. The issue for us was never if there was going to be violence, but how much violence would be tolerated by society before there was a decision to do something about it. The violence has been against health clinics and reproductive-rights activists, environmental activists, people of color, gays and lesbians, and Jews. Threats against government officials have become commonplace, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Many of us thought that April 19 would bring a physical confrontation of some sort, given that Waco is the central icon of this movement. No one imagined a horror of the magnitude of what happened in Oklahoma City.
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19 and the reported involvement of perpetrators linked to armed rightwing militias finally made the danger of these groups evident to all. But the warning signs were there all along.
The growth of armed militias has been rapid, with new units appearing on a weekly basis. An educated guess about the number of militia members ranges from 10,000 to 40,000. There is at least one militia unit up and running in forty states, with militia organizing most likely happening in all fifty states.
Anyone with an ear to the ground could have heard the rumblings. The Oklahoma bombing was not by any means the first act of public violence with connections to the armed militias and the Patriot movement they grow out of. John Salvi, who is accused of shooting reproductive-rights workers in Brookline, Massachusetts, last year, told his former employer that he was interested in the armed militias. And Francisco Duran, who was convicted of spraying the White House with bullets, was linked to the Patriot movement and armed militias.
Two years ago, even before the militias had settled on a name, alternative journalists began writing about them. Small research groups issued report after report, but no one seemed to be listening. The best early research came from such groups as the Coalition for Human Dignity, People Against Racist Terror, Western States Center, Institute for First Amendment Studies, Alternet, the Montana Human Rights Network, Political Research Associates, the Center for Democratic Renewal, and many others.
The first national groups that tried to get reporters to pay attention to the threat included Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Working Group. The first national conference on the threat posed by the militias was held near Seattle in January 1995 and was organized by the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote to Janet Reno on October 25, 1994, alerting her to the danger of the militias. The Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee published reports on the militias.
So how were the warnings of scores of groups and hundreds of people so systematically ignored by government officials? Activists and researchers had been pleading with Congress to hold hearings on the ongoing rightwing violence for years. It took a stack of bodies to force the hearing onto the calendar, and now we see that Congressional attention is focused on terrorism rather than the underlying causes that fuel the rightwing militia movement.
If there had been a movement set on violent confrontation with the U.S. government and consisting of 10,000 to 40,000 armed militia members who were African- American, you can bet they would have been investigated months ago, with many members arrested. And you can bet that Congress and the media would have played up the danger.
The armed militias are the militant wing of the Patriot movement, which has perhaps five million followers in this country. This diverse rightwing populist movement is composed of independent groups in many states, unified around the idea that the government is increasingly tyrannical. This antigovernment ideology focuses on federal gun control, taxes, regulations, and perceived federal attacks on constitutional liberties.
Many militia members also believe in a variety of conspiracy theories that identify a secret elite that controls the government, the economy, and the culture. Variations on these themes include theories of a secular-humanist conspiracy of liberals to take God out of society, to impose a One World Global Government or a New World Order under the auspices of the United Nations. Though many militia members appear unaware of this, these theories conform to longstanding anti-Semitic ideologies dating to the Nineteenth Century. White-supremacist states'rights arguments and other theories rooted in racial bigotry also pervade the militia movement.
The Patriot movement is bracketed on the "moderate" side by the John Birch Society and some of Pat Robertson's followers,and on the more militant side by Liberty Lobby and avowedly white-supremacist and antisemitic groups, such as neo-Nazi groups. The leadership of pre-existing far-right groups, such as the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, and the Christian Patriots are attempting to steer the armed militia movement toward these white-supremacist and racist ideologies.
Attending a Patriot meeting is like having your cable-access channel video of a PTA meeting crossed with audio from an old Twilight Zone rerun. The people seem so sane and regular. They are not clinically deranged, but their discourse is paranoid, and they are awash in the crudest conspiracy theories.
In November 1994, there was a Patriot meeting at a high school in Burlington, Massachusetts, a short distance from Boston and Brookline. Speakers included John Birch Society stalwart Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Sandra Martinez of Concerned Women for America, and leading antiabortion organizer Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Both the John Birch Society and the Concerned Women for America are also active in the anti-abortion movement.
Jefferson began to speak, tying groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800s. Jefferson is a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life committee and a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
During the meeting, attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den's Gun Shop in Lakeville, Massachusetts. One book offered instruction in the use of the Ruger .22 rifle, the weapon used by Salvi. Other books contained diagrams on how to build bombs and incendiary devices. One title was Improvised Weapons of the American Underground.
You could even purchase the book Hunter by neo-Nazi William Pierce of the National Alliance. Hunter is a book about parasitic Jews destroying America, and the need for armed civilians to carry out political assassinations to preserve the white race. Pierce's previous book, The Turner Diaries, was the primary sourcebook of racist terror underground organizations, such as The Order, in the 1980s, and still is favored by the neo-Nazi wing of the militias. The Turner Diaries includes a section on the bombing of a federal building by the armed underground.
One speaker, Ed Brown, runs the Constitutional Defense Militia of New Hampshire. Brown passed out brochures offering "Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures."
The featured afternoon speaker was Robert K. Spear, a key figure in training armed civilian militias. Spear is the author of Surviving Global Slavery: Living Under the New World Order. According to Spear, we are living in the "End Times" predicted in the book of Revelations. Spear cited the Book of Revelation, Chapter 13, warning that Christians will be asked to accept the Satanic "Mark of the Beast" and reject Christ. True Christians, Spear said, must defend their faith and prepare the way for the return of Christ. Spear believes the formation of armed Christian communities is necessary to prepare for the End Times.
Spear's idea that we are in the End Times is growing in rightwing Christian evangelical circles. While predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, there are small groups of orthodox and charismatic Catholics that also are embracing End Times theology.
These views are hardly marginal within the Christian right. Pat Robertson has been emphasizing this theme on his 700 Club television program. Just after Christmas last year, the 700 Club carried a feature on new dollar-bill designs being discussed to combat counterfeiting. The newscaster then cited Revelations and suggested that if the Treasury Department put new codes on paper money, it might be the Mark of the Beast. Other End Timers believe the Mark of the Beast is hidden in supermarket bar codes or computer microchips.
It is the convergence of various streams of fanatical rightwing beliefs that seems to be sweeping the militia movement along. Overlapping rightwing social movements with militant factions appear to be coalescing within the militias. These include:
This coalescence 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.
The armed militias are riding the crest of a historically significant rightwing populist revolt in America.
This revolt has arisen from two major stresses:
Among militia members, there is a great sense of anger over unresolved grievances, over the sense that no one is listening, and this anger has shifted to bitter frustration. The government is perceived to be the enemy because it is the agency by which the economy is governed, and by which equal rights for previously disenfranchised groups are being protected.
But militia members have a point about economic deterioration, and about the systematic expansion of the state's repressive apparatus. These are tenets of populism, which can be participatory and progressive, or scapegoating and regressive.
The last twenty years have seen a decline in real wages for millions of Americans. The farm belt has been particularly hard-hit, and the government shares part of this responsibility, since it urged farmers to borrow heavily and plant fence-to-fence for the Soviet grain deal, then collapsed the farm economy by canceling the deal, which nearly destroyed the family farm.
And the government has abused its power in pursuing and killing rightwing militants without benefit of due process in a series of incidents since 1983, of which Waco was merely the latest and most murderous example.
These wrongs reflect real structures of political and economic inequality central to U.S. policy. Anti-elitism, properly directed, would be a healthy response. But the Patriot movement diverts attention away from actual systems of power by the use of scapegoating and by reducing complex reasons for social and economic conditions to simple formulaic conspiracies.
There is an undercurrent of resentment within the Patriot movement against what are seen as the unfair advantages the government gives to people of color and women through such programs as affirmative action. Thus, the militias are now only the most violent reflection of the backlash against the social-liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Patriot movement represents an expression of profound anger, virtually a temper tantrum, by a subculture made up primarily, but not exclusively, of white, Christian males.
This temper tantrum is fueled by an old tenet of conspiracy theories: that the country is composed of two types of persons-parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom; the producers are the hard-working average citizens in the middle. This analysis lies at the ideological heart of rightwing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control the currency and the banking sector. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society. In the current political scene, this dichotomy between parasites and producers takes on elements of racism because the people at the bottom who are seen as parasites are usually viewed as people of color, primarily black and Hispanic, even though most persons who receive government assistance are white.
Yet it is not only the angry defense of white male heterosexual privilege that fuels rightwing populism, but also the real economic grievances of working-class and middle-class people. Unless society adapts to address these legitimate grievances, the scapegoating will spread, and rightwing populism can turn to violent authoritarian revolt or move towards fascism.
But even if the society never becomes fascist, the period of turmoil can be dangerous, since it is almost inevitable that someone will conclude that the most efficient solution is to kill the scapegoats.
How, then, shall we respond to the armed militias? The answer is definitely not to curtail civil liberties. This would serve to further antagonize militia members and reinforce their paranoia about the government. And it would give the government a huge new club to beat up on leftwing dissidents-the typical victims of government repression.
Why should we fear the government? Ask a Japanese American interned during World War II. Ask a member of the American Indian Movement or the Black Panther Party. Ask a Puerto Rican Independence activist. Ask a young African-American male driving through a wealthy suburb. Ask a civil-rights activist. Ask a Vietnam war protester. Ask an antiinterventionist who was monitored by the FBI during its probe of CISPES in the 1980s.
When government informants cannot find their suspected terrorists, they have been known to encourage violence where none was planned before their infiltration. This has happened time and again.
Our law-enforcement agencies now manipulate the real presence of fear to demand laws that would undermine freedom of speech. They are once again pursuing the false notion that widespread infiltration can stop the tiny terror cells or violent rebellions that sometimes spin out of dissident social movements when grievances are ignored. Government officials to this day refuse to admit that negligent bureaucratic brutality at Waco could cause any citizen to be distrustful or cynical about government.
Suppressing speech will not solve the problem. But we need to change the tone and content of that speech, which is filled with shrill invective, undocumented assertions, and scapegoating.
The way to disarm the militia movement is to address its real economic grievances, rationally refute its scapegoating, and expose the lies and prejudices that its most fanatical members spew.
Such a strategy was used, with partial success, to confront the Posse Comitatus fifteen years ago. The Posse blamed the collapsing farm economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s on a conspiracy of Jewish bankers manipulating subhuman minorities. In response, a coalition led by the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta organized against scapegoating, offered assistance to groups voicing legitimate economic grievances, and assisted people in reintegrating into the economy.
Teams went county-by-county through Posse strongholds. Black Baptist ministers talked about anti-Semitism; Jews talked about racism; Lutherans talked about healing; farm organizers gave economic advice. The American Jewish Committee hosted a conference in Chicago to call national attention to both anti-Semitism in the farm belt and social and economic injustice in rural America.
This coalition had more to do with beating back the Posse than armed lawenforcement attacks, criminal trials, or civil litigation. What the coalition's education work did not do, however, was uproot the underlying social and economic problems that made the Posse, and now make the Patriot movement, attractive.
The widespread rejection of the federal government, and of Democratic and Republican parties alike, points to the need for genuine radical alternatives, which get at the real structures of power and inequality, rather than offering conspiracies and pointing at scapegoats.
The problem is not anger or militancy; the problem is phony answers, the problem is dehumanization, the problem is violence. This year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi Holocaust, it seems troubling to still be debating whether scapegoating can lead to violence and death.
Chip Berlet is an analyst at Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Matthew N. Lyons is a freelance writer and independent historian. Berlet and Lyons are the authors of the book, Too Close for Comfort: Rightwing Populism, Scapegoating, and Fascist Potentials in U.S. Political Traditions, published by South End Press. The authors thank Nan Rubin, Adele Oltman, the staff of Political Research Associates, and the Blue Mountain Working Group for assistance in framing the ideas behind this article.
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