Extreme Prejudice

How the media misrepresent the militia movement

"Who could possibly have done such an evil, cruel act?"

It's a question that we all asked ourselves as we watched the TV images of a demolished building filled suddenly with the dead, the dying, and the terrorized.

For a day, reporters and terrorism experts told us the bombers were almost certainly Muslim terrorists from the Middle East. Then the FBI captured a suspect who turned out to be one of our own--not just an American, but one who had served in our military and fought in one of our wars. Shocked that an American could do such a thing, reporters went looking for a bigger story.

The FBI wasn't about to throw the case by talking details. But the news media needed scary people to show to a public ravenous for answers. So the media told us that the FBI's primary suspect, Timothy McVeigh, and his two alleged co-conspirators, Terry and James Nichols, had some kind of association with something called the Michigan Militia. Then they gave us hours of TV coverage on what they repeatedly described as an extreme right-wing, anti-government, armed-and-dangerous group of paranoid Americans.

Never mind that leaders of two different militia groups in Michigan insisted that the suspects were not members of any militia group, and that indeed, they had been ejected from a meeting because of their extreme and violent talk. The media told us with lots of film clips of Americans training in the woods that the militia movement represents a threat to American society every bit as serious as Middle Eastern terrorists.

Reporters had seemingly reliable sources to back their conclusions. Last October, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch had issued separate reports warning of the "danger posed by the growing white supremacist involvement in newly formed citizen militias." Both groups had urged Attorney General Janet Reno "to alert all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by the unauthorized militias," several of which had allegedly been infiltrated by white racists and anti-Semites.

The national media responded to the two reports with alarm-bell-ringing accounts of the troubling militia movement. These groups, according to press accounts, were preparing for armed clashes with their own government. And even when reporters didn't accuse the militias of violent racism, they described them as "a right-wing counter-culture" of "fearsomely aggressive adherents" engaged in the "politics of paranoia," to quote a Los Angeles Times account. Television exposés ran film clips of men and women dressed in combat fatigue uniforms, carrying military style semi-automatic weapons as they trained for combat.

I had learned about the militia movement several months before the Oklahoma tragedy while cruising the Internet newsgroup talk.politics.guns. The messages posted there by computer literates explaining and defending the militia movement didn't read like the ravings of white racist paranoids looking for an excuse to go to war with the government. They described the militia movement as a reasonable extension of the philosophy of armed self-defense. If one keeps weapons to protect one's family against the criminal intruder, doesn't it also make sense to prepare for the possibility that the government may turn criminally violent? There are plenty of 20th-century precedents for fearing that might happen in our country, as it has in others.

Of course, such arguments sound rational only to someone who believes that the Second Amendment confirms an individual's unalienable right to own and bear firearms--to someone who believes that an armed citizenry, like a free press, is an important bulwark of liberty. These arguments assume that the Framers of the Constitution intended that armed citizens would serve as the ultimate check on government power. Militia supporters argue that arms are most valuable as deterrents, whether to prowlers or out-of-control government agents.

Hoping to understand the militia movement, I sent a few of my own messages over the Internet. Working from the initial e-mail contacts, I interviewed citizen militia leaders, members, and people friendly to the militia movement in Texas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Montana, Wisconsin, California, Washington, and my own home state, Idaho. What I learned about the movement suggests that its motivations, members, attitudes, and tactics have been grossly mischaracterized by culturally ignorant reporters more concerned with telling sensational stories than with explaining the more-complicated truth.

To understand what the militia movement is talking about, one needs to understand a bit of federal law. While most of us never think about it--or even know about it--every American male spends 28 years as a member of a militia, whether he wants to belong or not. United States Code, Title 10, Section 311, describes the militia of the United States as consisting of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and under 45 years of age. If we are not members of the National Guard, then we are, by law, members of the unorganized militia who can be called to service at any time by the appropriate legal authority.

Any two or more American men can therefore claim to be an association of members of the unorganized militia, just as they might be an association of voters, taxpayers, parents, or citizens. So it's important to make a few distinctions among different kinds of groups of armed citizens who have grievances against the government. These are the critical distinctions that neither reporters nor experts from the ADL and Klanwatch nor representatives of the Clinton administration have been careful to make. Such armed groups and associations in the United States include:

* The criminal racists, tax protesters, radical environmentalists, and political groups committed to violent revolution. These are people with narrowly focused agendas who will deliberately break the law in pursuit of their agendas. Examples include the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Freemen, and some environmental and animal rights groups. Such criminal groups count their members in the tens and sometimes the hundreds, but they seldom grow much bigger. Federal and state police agencies have been remarkably successful in catching and prosecuting these criminals.

* Peaceful survivalists, racial separatists, and religious cult groups. These include Mormon polygamists, the Universal Church Triumphant, Bo Gritz, the Branch Davidians, and similar survivalist groups. Some of them may evade taxes, stockpile illegal arms, home school in violation of state laws, or commit other violations of state and local law, but these people seldom threaten harm to outsiders or commit crimes against their neighbors. They frequently live in enclosed communities, and are often armed and prepared to repel attacks against their sanctuaries. Federal law enforcement agencies mistakenly assumed that the Branch Davidians fit within the criminal category described above, and in doing so, made the Davidians' paranoid nightmares come true.

* The loners and the Walter Mittys. These are angry individuals who personalize their war with government. They tend to be very secretive and demonstrate limited social and employment skills. Occasionally, one of them will try to make his fantasies of glory a reality. When they do, they can cause a lot of havoc and get lots of media attention. Examples include Francisco Duran, who recently shot up the White House; the attackers on abortion clinics; Lee Harvey Oswald; and most mass murderers. Police agencies usually catch these criminals, but like serial killers, they can be much harder to identify than members of criminal political groups. (After 17 years, law enforcement agencies still haven't identified the "Unabomber," who celebrated Oklahoma City by mailing another of his creations.)

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