This article is part of a package on right-wing violence and militias. For a counterpoint from the libertarian magazine Reason, read The Paranoid Center . And to read an interview with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, visit Utne.com/IntelligenceReport.
In Pensacola, Florida, retired FBI agent Ted Gunderson tells a gathering of antigovernment “Patriots” that the federal government has set up 1,000 internment camps around the country and is storing 30,000 guillotines and 500,000 caskets in Atlanta. He says it’s all for the day when the United States declares martial law and moves in to round up or kill citizen dissenters.
Outside Atlanta, a so-called grand jury issues an “indictment” of Barack Obama for fraud and treason because he wasn’t born in the United States and is illegally occupying the office of president. Other sham “grand juries” around the country follow suit.
In Lexington, Massachusetts, where the opening shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in 1775, members of Oath Keepers, a newly formed group of law enforcement officers, military personnel, and veterans convene on April 19 to reaffirm a pledge to defend the U.S. Constitution. The date of the gathering is highly significant: It’s not only the anniversary of that “shot heard round the world,” it also marks the 1993 conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the lethal bombing two years later of the Oklahoma City federal building—all seminal events in the lore of the extreme right. “We’re in perilous times . . . perhaps far more perilous than in 1775,” says the man administering the oath.
Almost 10 years after the militia movement seemed to disappear from American life, there are unmistakable signs of a revival. From Idaho to New Jersey and from Michigan to Florida, men and women in khaki and camouflage are back in the woods, gathering to practice the paramilitary skills they believe will be needed to fend off the socialistic troops of the storied New World Order.
Paper terrorism—the use of property liens, bogus legal documents, and “citizens’ grand juries” to attack enemies and, sometimes, reap illegal fortunes—is proliferating. As a result, the government has set up special efforts to rein in so-called “tax defiers” and to track threats against judges. At the same time, Patriot fears about the government are being amplified by a loud new group of ostensibly mainstream media personalities and politicians, from Fox News commentator Glenn Beck to Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress from Minnesota.
The situation has many authorities worried. Militiamen, white supremacists, anti-Semites, nativists, tax protesters, and a range of other activists of the radical right are cross-pollinating and may even be coalescing. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that 50 new militia training groups have sprung up in less than two years. Sales of guns and ammunition have skyrocketed amid fears of new gun control laws, much as they did in the 1990s.
“You’re seeing the bubbling [of antigovernment sentiment] right now,” says Bart McEntire, who has infiltrated racist hate groups and now is the supervisory special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Roanoke, Virginia. “You see people buying into what they’re saying. It’s primed to grow. The only thing you don’t have to set it on fire is a Waco or a Ruby Ridge.”
Over the past year, men with antigovernment, racist, anti-Semitic, or pro-militia views have been linked to a series of high-profile murders.
One man who was “very upset” with the election of America’s first black president was allegedly building a radioactive dirty bomb; another, a Marine, was planning to assassinate Obama, as were two white supremacists in Tennessee and Arkansas; another perpetrator, upset over the election and said to be interested in joining a militia, killed two sheriff’s deputies in Florida. A man in Pittsburgh who feared Jews and gun confiscations murdered three police officers. Near Boston, a white man angered by the alleged “extinction” of his race shot to death two African immigrants and intended to murder as many Jews as possible. An 88-year-old neo-Nazi killed a guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In Kansas, an abortion physician was murdered by a man steeped in the ideology of the sovereign citizen movement.
Members of the sovereign citizen movement subscribe to an ideology, originated by the anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus of the 1980s, that claims that whites are a higher kind of citizen, subject only to “common law,” not the dictates of the government. Blacks are mere “14th Amendment citizens” who must obey their government masters. Although not all sovereigns subscribe to or even know about the theory’s racist basis, most contend that they do not have to pay taxes, are not subject to most laws, and are not citizens of the United States.
Authorities and anecdotal evidence suggest that sovereign citizens—who, along with tax protesters and militia members, form the larger Patriot movement—may make up the most dramatically reenergized sector of the radical right. In December 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI, looking to gather information on an “emerging threat,” launched a national operation targeting white supremacists and “militia/sovereign citizen extremist groups.”
Sovereign citizens in particular are engaging in paper terrorism. A Michigan man whose company allegedly doubled as the headquarters of a militia group, for example, was arrested in May on charges that he placed bogus liens on property owned by courthouse officials and police officers to harass them and ruin their credit. In March, authorities raided a Las Vegas printing firm where meetings of the “Sovereign People’s Court for the United States” were conducted in a mock courtroom. Seminars on how to use phony documents and other illegal means to pay off creditors allegedly were taught there. Four people were arrested on money-laundering, tax, and weapons charges.
Due to a spike in “inappropriate communications” with court personnel from an increasingly angry citizenry, the U.S. Marshals Service has opened a clearinghouse in suburban Washington, D.C., for assessing risk. The incidents include telephone and written threats against federal judges and prosecutors, as well as bomb threats and biochemical incidents. In fiscal 2008 there were 1,278 threats and harassing communications, more than double the number of six years earlier. That statistic was on pace to grow again in fiscal 2009. Sovereign citizens account for a small percentage of the cases, but theirs are more complex and generally require more resources, according to Michael Prout, assistant director of judicial security for the marshals. “They are resourceful groups,” he says.
In broad terms, the growth of militias in the ’90s reflected widespread anger over what was seen as the meddling of a relatively liberal administration in touchstone issues from gun control to environmental regulation. Specifically, though, it was the bloodshed in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, that put the movement in motion.
In 1992 there was a standoff in Idaho between white separatist Randy Weaver and federal agents over the patriarch’s sale of an illegal weapon. When it was over, Weaver’s son and wife were dead, along with a U.S. marshal. The following year, some 80 members of the Branch Davidian cult died in a fire that ended a 51-day standoff with federal agents in Texas. Thousands of Americans saw these events as proof that the government was prepared to murder its own citizens in the name of some sort of liberal orthodoxy, a New World Order that reflected the economic and political globalization that militia backers felt was robbing their country of its independence and its unique culture.
The movement of the ’90s ultimately wound down, and all but disappeared after the turn of the millennium. There were a variety of reasons for this demise, including the arrests of many militia backers involved in terrorist plots, the jailing of hundreds of others on weapons violations, and the violent rhetoric and behavior that members continued to produce even after 168 people, including 19 children, were murdered in Oklahoma City by men steeped in the ideology of both militias and racist hate groups. It didn’t help that a number of Patriot predictions and conspiracy theories failed to pan out, including warnings of an apocalyptic Y2K collapse on January 1, 2000.
The election of George W. Bush to the presidency also slowed down the movement, in large part because of his conservative credentials. The election of Barack Obama ushered in the militias’ return. The fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate.
Every month, militia trainings are held around the country. The Internet teems with training videos, information about meetings and rallies, far-fetched rumors and conspiracy theories. According to research done by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of race-based hate groups grew from 602 in 2000 to 926 in 2008.
“This frequently happens when elections favor the political left and the society is seen as moving toward greater social equality or away from traditional societal hierarchies,” Chip Berlet, a longtime analyst of the radical right at Political Research Associates, said in a June newsletter. “In this scenario, it is easier for right-wing demagogues to successfully demonize liberals as abandoning morality and crafting a tyrannical New World Order.”
Additionally, the anti-immigration movement is both fueling and helping to racialize the antigovernment Patriot resurgence. More and more, nativist groups like the Minutemen are adopting core militia ideas and fears. They have also contributed their own conspiracy theories, from the secret Mexican “El Plan de Aztlan” to reconquer the American Southwest to another involving the secretly arranged merger of the United States, Mexico, and Canada into a “North American Union.”
Conspiracy fears have bubbled up from other quarters of the far right. Most notably, the “birthers” have filed a series of lawsuits making the claim that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. These spurious claims first gained traction when prominent extremists like writer Jerome Corsi, politician Alan Keyes, and Watergate felon and radio show host G. Gordon Liddy questioned the validity of the president’s birth certificate. Many Patriots have also adopted conspiracy theories about secret government involvement in events like the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
“The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd but nonetheless influential conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims, and demonized targets,” Berlet concluded. “And this creates a milieu where violence is a likely outcome.”
A remarkable aspect of the current antigovernment movement is the extent to which it has gained support from elected officials and mainstream media outlets. Lawmakers complaining about the intrusiveness of the federal government have introduced 10th Amendment resolutions in about three dozen states, reasserting that those powers not granted to the federal government remain with the states. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry raised the prospect of secession several months after Obama’s inauguration. Republican Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said she feared that the president was planning “reeducation camps for young people.” Spencer Bachus, a U.S. representative from Alabama, warned of 17 “socialists” in Congress, evoking memories of the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Glenn Beck, who has called Obama’s policies both fascist and Marxist, and compared the administration to the Nazis, refloated militia conspiracy theories of the 1990s, alleging a secret network of government-run concentration camps.
The original movement also had its mainstream backers, but they were largely confined to talk radio; today, Beck is just one of the well-known cable TV news personalities to air fictitious conspiracies and other unlikely Patriot ideas. Lou Dobbs, formerly of CNN, questioned the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, despite a report from his parent network definitively debunking the claim. On MSNBC, commentator Pat Buchanan suggested recently that white Americans are now suffering “exactly what was done to black folks.” On Fox News, regular contributor Dick Morris said, “Those crazies in Montana who say, ‘We’re going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.’s going to take over’—well, they’re beginning to have a case.”
At the same time, players like the National Rifle Association, which in the 1990s publicly attacked federal law enforcement agents as “jackbooted thugs,” are back at it. Two months before the election last fall, firearms manufacturers joined forces to promote NRA membership in a national campaign ominously dubbed “Prepare for the Storm in 2008.”
Gun shows, which often function as a venue for militia-like ideology, are back in vogue. In a video produced in April by Max Blumenthal, senior writer at the online news site the Daily Beast, a man interviewed at one such show says, “If Obama tries to get rid of our guns, it’s just a step away from trying to take away everything else.” Another says fellow attendees were “preparing for the worst.”
Patriot ideology also has crept into the anti-tax “tea parties” that were staged by conservatives around the country in April and July. In addition to protesting government spending and taxation, some demonstrators called for sovereignty of the states, abolition of the Federal Reserve (a longtime bogeyman of the radical right), and an end to “socialism” in Washington. At the tea party in Jacksonville, Florida, protesters carried signs that compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
Once again, fearful Patriots are scurrying to prepare for what they see as the coming societal meltdown, stockpiling not only weaponry but also food and an array of other items. Newsletter publisher Lee Bellinger, for instance, peddles Social Chaos Survival Guide: Smart, Savvy Precautions to Make You Self-Reliant in These Dangerous Times and warns of “impending national social chaos.” The book, he says, is “for people who want to stand their ground without attracting a whole lot of attention, either from the authorities” or from “mobs of desperate fellow citizens.”
A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security pointed to the role of the Internet in the current movement: “Unlike the earlier period, the advent of the Internet and other information-age technologies since the 1990s has given domestic extremists greater access to information related to bomb-making, weapons training and tactics, as well as targeting of individuals, organizations and facilities, potentially making . . . the consequences of their violence more severe.”
Evidence that angry Americans are arming themselves for violence is hard to ignore.
In March, a Spokane, Washington, man pleaded guilty to illegally possessing two grenade launchers, 54 grenades, 37 machine guns, eight silencers, and a variety of explosives in a storage unit. The man had an “End the Fed” bumper sticker on his vehicle. In May, another Washington resident was charged with keeping an illegal cache of weapons that included a machine gun, four silencers, and two guns made by a local gunsmith and inscribed “Christian warrior” and “NObama.”
In Nebraska, a jury convicted Allison Klanecky for possession of unregistered grenade components. Prosecutors said that a search of Klanecky’s barn and an underground bunker turned up dozens of containers of explosive powder, fuses, and other components that could be used to make up to 93 grenades. Klanecky was allegedly involved in an end-times group called the Prophecy Club that sells conspiracy books and DVDs on everything from the New World Order to globalism and the 9/11 attacks.
The Idaho Citizens Constitutional Militia recently posted an opening for a “field sniper.” Around the same time, an Ohio Militia member, face hidden by a bandanna and voice distorted electronically, posted a video to YouTube.
“People need to wake up and start buying some of these,” he said as he displayed a semiautomatic rifle. “Things are real bad, and they’re going to get a lot worse.”
Excerpted from Intelligence Report (Fall 2009), a quarterly published by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tracking the radical right in the United States, it is distributed free of charge to law enforcement officials, journalists, and scholars.