Ground Zero

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Image by Flickr user: Photocapy / Creative Commons

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning when the telephone wakes Glen Wallace, an Oklahoma City psychologist. The farmer on the other end of the line has been drinking and is holding a loaded gun to his head. He tells Wallace that his farm is to be sold at auction within a few days and that he can’t bear the shame he has brought to his family. The only way out, he says, is to kill himself.

Within hours Wallace is at the farm. This time the farmer agrees to go into counseling; this time no one dies. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Wallace has handled hundred of these calls through AG-LINK, a farm crisis hotline, and many times the suicide attempts are successful.

According to Mona Lee Brock, a former AG-LINK counselor, therapists in Oklahoma alone make more than 150 onsite suicide interventions with farmers each year. And Oklahoma has only the third-highest number of farm suicides in the nation, trailing both Montana and Wisconsin.

A study conducted in 1989 at Oklahoma State University determined that suicide is a leading cause of death on America’s family farms and that the suicides are the direct result of economic stress. The study showed that farmers took their own lives five times more often than they were killed by equipment accidents, which, until the study, were considered to be the leading cause of farm deaths. 

“These figures are probably very conservative,” says Pat Lewis, who directed the research. “We’ve been provided with information from counselors and mental health workers that suggests that many of the accidental deaths are, in reality, suicides.” Wallace, who is one of those mental health workers, agrees:  “The known suicides are just a drop in the bucket. We have farmers crawling into their equipment and being killed so their families can collect insurance money and pay off the farm debt.  They’re dying in order to stop a foreclosure.”

Most Americans think that the farm crisis is a thing of the past–old news from the 1980s, when rural despair garnered newspaper headlines and cover stories in major magazines. But it isn’t over. According to Brock, things are as bad now for the family farmer as they were in the ’80s. She notes that recent USDA figures that show the economic health of farms are improving are, in fact, skewed by the inclusion of large farming cooperatives and corporate farms. Brock also says that “state hotlines are busier than ever as the small family is being pushed off the land.”

For 20 years the government has refused to enforce the anti-trust laws that once protected the small farmer. Now, with only six to eight multinational corporations controlling the American food supply, farmers and ranchers have no choice but to sell their products to these monopolies, often for less than their production costs. (In 1917 wheat sold for $2.14 a bushel.  In the past five years prices have dipped as low as $2.17 a bushel. The cost of raising wheat is considerably higher now than in 1917.)

As if monopolies weren’t enough of a problem, the federal government has increased the interest rates on its loans to troubled farmers to ridiculous heights, sometimes more than 15 percent. And, as many bitter farmers will tell you, the only reason many of these loans exist is that the government’s Farm Home Administration (FMHA) agents sought out farmers in the ’70s and encouraged them to take out loans. The government agents told them that the value of their farms was inflating faster than the current interest rates and that to turn down a loan was a poor business decision. During that time, FMHA lenders received bonuses and trips based on how much money they lent. When land values tumbled in the ’80s, the notes were called and the farms foreclosed. Ironically, bonuses are now awarded based on an agent’s ability to clean up the books by foreclosing on bad loans.

In Oklahoma, the government is foreclosing on Josh Powers, a farmer who took out a $98,000 loan at 8 percent in 1969. That same loan today has an interest rate of 15 percent. The angry farmer claims that he has paid back more than $150,000 against the loan, yet he still owes $53,000. Says Powers, “They’ll spend millions to get me, a little guy, off the land–while Neil Bush just walks away from the savings and loan scandal.”

The 1987 Farm Bill allowed for loans such as this to be “written down,” allowing farmers to bring their debt load back in line with the diminished value of their farms. The purpose of the bill was to keep financially strapped farmers on the land. But in a rarely equaled display of government bungling, this debt forgiveness process was left to the whims of county bureaucrats with little or no banking experience. 

As Wallace says, “Imagine the frustration when a small farmer sees the buddy or family member of one of these county agents getting a $5 million write-down at the same time the agent is foreclosing on [the small farmer] for a measly $20,000. It happens all the time. When these little farmers complain, they’re given a telephone number in Washington. It’s become a big joke in farm country. I’ve even tried to call it for years.  You get this recording and nobody ever calls you back.

“These farmers are literally at the mercy of these county bureaucrats, and some of them are just horrible people. If they decide they don’t like you for any reason, they can destroy your life: hold back your seed money till it’s too late to plant or call your note because the value of your farm–on paper–has dropped below what you owe. We’ve had to intervene several times to keep farmers from killing them.”

According to Wallace, thousands of people have died as a result of the farm crisis, and not just from suicide. The psychologist says the number of men and women who have died of heart attacks and other illnesses–directly as a result of stress brought on by foreclosure–dwarfs the suicide numbers.

Stress-induced deaths are often viewed as murder in farm country, especially among farmers whose despair and anger have led them into the arms of organized right-wing anti-government groups like the Freemen and the Christian Identity movement. Not long ago I traveled to western Oklahoma and met with a group of farmers who have become involved in the Freemen/Identity movement. The meeting demonstrated not only their belief that the government is to blame for their loss, but also the politics that evolve from that belief.

“They murdered her,” says Sam Conners (not his real name). The room goes silent as the gray-haired 60-year-old stares out the window of his soon-to-be-foreclosed farmhouse. In his left hand he holds a photograph of his wife, who died of a heart attack in 1990. “She fought ’em as long as she could,” he continues, “but she finally gave out. Even when she was lying there in a coma and I was visiting her every day–bringing my 9-year-old boy to see his mamma every day–they wouldn’t cut me no slack. All they cared about was getting me off my land so they could take it. But I tell you now, I’m never gonna give up. They’ll have to carry me off feet first and they probably will.”

The other men in the room sit quietly as they listen to Conners’ story, their eyes alternating between their dirty work boots and the angry farmer. The conversation comes to a sudden halt with a click from a tape recorder. Conners looks clumsy as he tries to change the small tape in the microcassette recorder. His thick, earth-stained fingers seem poorly designed for the delicate task. “I apologize for recording you,” he says to me.  “We just have to be careful.”

With their low-tech safeguard back in place, one of the other men begins to speak. Tim, a California farmer who looks to be in his early 30s, describes his plight: another farm, another foreclosure, more anti-government sentiment. Only this time, the story is filled with the unmistakable religious overtones of the Christian Identity movement: one world government, Satan’s Jewish bankers, the Federal Reserve, a fabricated Holocaust, a coming holy war. “This kind of injustice is going on all over the country,” says Tim. “It’s what happened to the folks in Montana [referring to the Freemen and their 83-day standoff with the FBI] and it’s what happened to me. That’s why LeRoy [Schweitzer, a local leader of the Freemen] was arrested. He was teaching people how to keep their farms and ranches. He was showing them that the government isn’t constitutional. They foreclose on us so they can control the food supply. What they want to do is control the Christians.”

As far back as 1989, Wallace–then director of an organization called Rural Mental Health for Oklahoma–was beginning to see disturbing connections between rural despair and the growth of hate groups. In his testimony before a congressional committee examining rural development, Wallace warned that “many debt-ridden farm families are more suspicious of government, as their self-worth, their sense of belonging, their hope for the future deteriorates . . . These families are torn by divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism. There is a loss of relationships of these communities to the state and federal government . . . Farm-dependent rural areas are suffering what I could call community depression.We have communities that are made up now of collectively depressed individuals, and the symptoms of that community depression are similar to what you would find in someone who has a long-term chronic depression.”

Wallace went on to say that if the rural economic system remained fragile–and it has–the community depression could turn into a social and cultural psychosis, which he described as “delayed stress syndrome.” He believes this transition is now a reality. “There are regions of the country,” he says,” where the farm crisis has created pockets of poverty in rural communities and where large numbers of individuals are suffering from this syndrome.” He also warns that even if the government acts immediately to ease the economic situation in farm country, rural people will be affected by this psychosis for decades to come.

In 1989 Wallace could only guess how this community psychosis would eventually express itself. Today he has seen his worst fears realized. “We knew the anti-government backlash was just around the corner, but we didn’t know exactly what form it would take. You can’t treat human beings in a society the way farmers have been treated without having them organize and fight back. It was just a matter of time.”

Losing a farm doesn’t happen overnight. It can take four to six years from the time a family first gets into financial trouble.  By the end, says Wallace, the families are victims of chronic long-term stress.  “Once a person is at that point,” he explains, “there are basically four escape hatches.  One, they seek help–usually through a church or the medical community. Two, they can’t take the pain and they commit suicide. They hurt themselves. Three, they become psychotic. They lose touch with reality.  They basically go crazy. And last, they . . . turn their anger outward. They decide that since they hurt, they’re going to make others hurt. These are the people who wind up threatening or even killing their leaders or FMHA agents. They’re also the ones who are most susceptible to a violent anti-government message.”

Unfortunately, psychotic personalities looking for support can find it in the wrong places. “Any group,” says Wallace, “can fill the need for support. Not just good ones.  Identity, militias, or any anti-government group can come along and fill that role. Add their influence to a personality that is already violent toward others and you have an extremely dangerous individual.”

No one knows how many members of the 700,000 farm families who have already lost their land or the additional hundreds of thousands who are still holding on to their farms under extreme duress have fallen prey to this violent psychosis, but all agree the number is growing. 

Most people don’t understand the mind-set of farmers, says Wallace: “They ask, why don’t farmers just get a new job or why does losing a farm cause someone to kill themselves or someone else?” Another rural psychologist, Val Farmer, has written often on this subject. In an article in Iowa Farmer Today, he explains why farm loss affects its victims so powerfully: “To lose a farm is to lose part of one’s own identity. There is probably no other occupation that has the potential for defining one’s ‘self’ so completely. Those who have gone through the loss of a family farm compare their grief to mourning a death in the family, one of the hardest experiences in life.

“Like some deaths, the loss may have been preventable. If a farmer blames himself, the reaction is guilt. Guilt can stem from a violation of family trust. By failing to keep the farm in the family, he loses what others had sacrificed for. The loss of the farm also affects the loss of the opportunity to pass on the farm to a child. Guilt can also arise from failing to anticipate the conditions that eventually placed farm at risk: government policy, trade policies, world economy, price, weather.

“On the other hand, if the loss is perceived to have been caused by the actions and negligence of others, then the farmer is racked with feelings of anger, bitterness, and betrayal. This feeling extends to lenders, the government, the urban public, or the specific actions of a particular individual or institution.”

Failing farmers often experience grief years before the actual loss occurs, says Farmer, and at the same time they’re trying to stop the threatened loss from taking place. “The stress intensifies with each new setback:  failure of cash flow, inability to meet obligations, loan refusal, foreclosure notices, court appearances, and farm auctions.” Farmer concludes that these people “grasp at straws–anything to stave off the inevitable.”

The anti-government message is one such straw, says Wallace: “When you reach the point where you’re willing to kill yourself, anything sounds good. When these groups come along and tell farmers that it’s not their fault, it’s the government’s fault or the bank’s fault, they’re more than ready to listen. These groups are preying on sick individuals.”

It’s no wonder that groups like the Freemen, We the People, and Christian Identity have found such enthusiastic support: They preach a message of hope for desperate men and women.

The Freemen offer their converts a chance to save the farm through a quagmire of constitutional loopholes and their complicated interpretations of the Uniform Commercial Code. Their legal voodoo may seem nuts to a suburban dweller, but to desperate farmers they offer a last hope to hang on to the land their grandparents homesteaded, a trust they intended to pass on to their children.

Farmer and Wallace agree that, as a rule, farmers have an extremely strong–perhaps even unhealthy–ethical sense when it comes to paying their bills. They suffer from deep humiliation and shame when they can’t fulfill their financial obligations. “It’s only natural that they would embrace an ideology that comes along and says they are not only not bad for failing to pay their debts but rather are morally and politically correct to not pay their debts,” says Wallace. “It’s a message that provides instant relief from the guilt that’s making them sick.”

And just how crazy the rhetoric is remains to be seen. Not everyone in the legal community scoffs at the Freemen’s claims.  Famed attorney Gerry Spence–who represented Randy Weaver, a survivor of Ruby Ridge–said that at least some of their interpretations of constitutional law are accurate.  It will be years before the court system manages to sort out the truth from the myth, and only then if it is willing to scrutinize itself–something it historically has shown little stomach for.

Christian Identity offers a similar, but even more dangerous, way out for stressed farm families. Identity teaches that Caucasians and Native Americans are God’s chosen people and that Jews are the seed of Satan. Identity believers see a conspiracy of “Satan’s army of Jews” taking control of banks, governments, media, and major corporations and destroying the family farm in order to control the food supply. They believe that we are at the beginning of a holy war in which Identity followers must battle these international forces of evil and establish a new and “just” government based on the principles of the Old Testament as Identity interprets it. Failing farmers become soldiers in a holy war, under orders not to give up their land or money to the Jewish enemy.

It’s an explosive combination: the Identity message plus an already psychotic personality who blames the government for the loss of a farm or a loved one. “You can’t imagine how much mental energy it takes to live that way,” says Wallace. “Should I end it all or should I get even, end it all or get even, over and over again, for days and months on end without sleep. It becomes impossible to make rational decisions. Then someone comes along and tells you God wants you to get even and you believe them.”

The anti-government groups offer more than an apocalyptic vision of the connection between government and economics; some also propose an alternative system of “jurisprudence.” The renegade legal system known as the “Justice” movement is now estimated to be active in more than 40 states.  It seems to have as many variations as the fractional anti-government movement that created it. Some followers hold common-law courts; the press and those accused of crimes are invited to attend. Sentences from these publicly held trials usually result in lawsuits, arrest warrants, judgments, and liens filed against public officials. 

Colorado attorney general Gale Norton has been one of the targets of these courts; millions of dollars worth of bogus liens have been filed against her. Across the nation, thousands of public officials, including governors, judges, county commissioners, and legislatures have been the targets of this new “paper terrorism.”  In most cases they are found guilty of consorting with the enemy: the federal government.

Ironically, arresting those involved in this mainstream common law court revolution isn’t easy. It’s not because they can’t be found; it’s because they may not be doing anything illegal. The Oklahoma attorney general’s office, for example, has spent considerable time and effort investigating whether common-law court organizers have broken any laws. 

The debate about whether or not citizens have a constitutional right to convene grand juries and hold public trials–only one of the fascinating legal issues being raised by these trends–will eventually be resolved. But there is a darker side to this vigilante court system: It doles out death sentences in its quest to deliver justice and create a new and “holy” government.

In his book Gathering Storm (HarperCollins, 1996), Morris Dees describes Identity this way: “There is nothing ‘goody, goody’ or ‘tender’ about Identiy. It is a religion, a form of Christianity, that few churchgoers would recognize as that of Jesus, son of a loving God.  It is a religion whose god commands the death of race traitors, homosexuals, and other so-called children of Satan.”

It is for this reason that the common law courts convened by groups influenced by the Identity belief system are by far the most dangerous. Death sentences can be handed down for almost any conceivable transgression.

In the remote western Oklahoma farmhouse, the Freeman/Identity farmers I met discussed the Justice movement. One man who recently lost his farm to foreclosure explains their court system: “What you’re seeing right now is just the beginning of taking back our country, the true Israel. The Bible says that we’re to be a just people. Where is justice in this country? Our judges turn loose rapists and murderers and put farmers in jail.  We’re about justice. Why would anyone be afraid of that?”

“We’re holding courts right now in every part of this land.  We’re finding people guilty and we’re keeping records so we can carry out the sentences.  It’s the citizen’s duty and right to hold common law courts. It’s the militia’s job to carry out the sentences.”

The farmer went on to explain that Identity doesn’t believe in prisons. Nearly all serious offenses are dealt with by capital punishment in a system based on the Bible, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and the Magna Carta. Asked how death sentences would be carried out, he said, “There’s a part of the militia that’s getting ready to start working on that. I think they’re ready to go now. You’ll start seeing it soon.”

Perhaps we already have. Was the Oklahoma City bombing only the largest and most recent example? When they are asked, the men in the room say emphatically that they have no firsthand knowledge of the bombing–even though some of them were questioned by the FBI within days of the deadly explosion. They say they don’t condone it because so many innocent people died, but they agree that it may well have been the result of a secret court sentence. The court could have found the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms guilty for any number of actions–including the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco and the Ruby Ridge killings–and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the suspects charged with the bombing, may have been militia foot soldiers simply following orders to carry out the sentence.

However the Oklahoma City case turns out, it seems likely that this new and radical system of vigilante justice will produce similar catastrophes. It also seems clear that comprehending and healing the illness in our countryside–an illness compounded by despair, stress, and burning anger–is our best hope for creating a future free of more bombs, death, and destruction.

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