"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.)

* The armed, but legitimate, political activists. This is a new phenomenon, at least in this century. These are socially successful people who respect and obey the law, but who are organizing and arming themselves because they fear they may be attacked by agencies of their own government. It was this new phenomenon, the citizen militias, that drew my interest. Just who are these people?

One thing we definitely are not are haters of government or haters of law enforcement," Bob Clarke, a member of the Michigan Militia told me a few days after the Oklahoma tragedy. "I have a driver's license, license plates, and I pay my taxes." Like many militia members, Clarke is a devout Christian who educates his children at home. He sees his participation in the militia movement as a continuing part of the Christian life. His reaction to the Oklahoma bombing is no different from any other American's: "Let's get them, find out who did it. Whoever did it is despicable. Any human being has to be appalled."

Clarke, who owns a computer service company, is a fairly typical militia member in both his background and motivations. Contrary to what some left-leaning analysts have claimed, militia members aren't drawn primarily from the ranks of the unemployed and economically disenfranchised. Like Clarke, they are solidly middle class. And, like Clarke, they are driven not by hatred--of blacks, Jews, or even the government--but by fear. They worry that the federal government does not respect the liberties guaranteed in the Constitution and may eventually pose a direct threat to them, their families, and their neighbors.

Although they have a host of popular grievances with the federal government--from land-use policies to gun control to just about everything the Department of Education does--militia members are clearly worried most about armed federal attacks. Most of the groups were organized sometime after the events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where, in 1992, U.S. Marshals and FBI agents killed Randy Weaver's son and wife, and the deadly 1993 standoff between the feds and Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas.

"First the feds put that Reverend Moon character in jail for tax evasion," Clarke told me in February when I asked why he thinks the federal government is dangerous. "I thought that was a great idea. Then they went after that guy from India with all those limousines in Oregon, which was OK with me too. But I started getting worried when I learned about what happened to Randy Weaver. When the FBI killed all those people in Waco, I asked myself who they were going to come for next, the Baptists?"

"Everybody is afraid of the government," the training officer for a local Michigan unit told me in February. A military veteran and one of several sources who asked that they not be quoted by name, he continued, "Our members see how the press is attacking those who dare to object to what the government is doing. First they demonize you, then they kill you like they did in Waco."

But, he said, "It's not just Waco and Ruby Ridge. We worry about RICO prosecutions, new restrictions on Fourth Amendment rights, tax seizures, property takings, you name it. But I think the assault weapon ban was more important in getting people interested in the militia movement than anything else. If they take our weapons away, then we have no way to fight to keep all our other rights."

Like ACLU lawyers who rely on the courts or intellectuals and journalists who rely on the press, militia members have a theory of how best to protect American liberties. They believe that maintaining freedom depends, ultimately, on the deterrent of an armed populace.

Nonetheless, says the training officer, "We don't wear our camo all of the time. We are not looking for an armed confrontation if we can avoid it. Every week, we pick a political issue based on what the media is reporting, and we crank out a letter on that issue which each member sends to his congressman or senator." Militia members are fond of saying that Americans' freedom rests on five boxes: the soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, the witness box, and the cartridge box.

But, as Idaho leader Samuel Sherwood told a March 2 meeting of militia commanders, most militia members believe that "now is the time for ink, not powder." In perhaps the most outrageous example of irresponsible coverage of the militia movement, a local reporter wrote--and The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt repeated--that Sherwood told his audience to look legislators in the face today because "you may have to be shooting them in the face" tomorrow. In fact, he said just the opposite. In the closing minutes of the meeting, Sherwood made an impassioned plea for using political action rather than violence in correcting the wrongs that the members of the United States Militia Association see in government. He suggested that if his listeners wanted to grab a gun to shoot their legislators, they should first go look them in the face and recognize that legislators are also American citizens who are fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives. The audience not only understood that he was arguing against violence, they applauded his remarks. UnlikeJournal columnist Hunt, I was actually at the meeting.

Sherwood, who leads the U.S. Militia Association from his home in Blackfoot, Idaho, argues that militia groups should not muster and train as military units except in the 17 states which legalize such activity under the supervision of civilian authority. In Idaho, where law and the state constitution make no provisions for the mustering of the unorganized militia, Sherwood's units meet as political action groups lobbying to allow such mustering.

Sherwood envisions the militia movement developing into a well-trained, self-financed, volunteer force ready to respond to the command of civilian officials in the event of a natural disaster, riot, or armed attack. Like most militia activists, Sherwood favors self-reliance and prefers local to national government. Instead of calling for federal troops (or National Guard units under federal command), he argues that governors, sheriffs, or local county commissioners would be better served if they could call up a volunteer militia unit equipped with personally owned weapons. Ultimately, Sherwood would like to see the United States organize its national defense on the Swiss model, with an armed and trained populace rather than a standing army (except for a few specialized forces to handle, for instance, nuclear weapons). Although units of the U.S. Militia Association do not muster and train in military tactics, at least not in Idaho, every person joining the association agrees to buy a legal semi-automatic assault weapon if he or she doesn't already own one, lots of ammunition, and the field equipment and supplies necessary to respond to a call to arms.

At Sherwood's invitation, I attended the March 2 meeting of commanders of U.S. Militia Association units located in and near Boise. Eighty people showed up at the Boise City and County building, about 30 of them wearing the military-green, mufti-style uniform of the U.S. Militia Association. A number brought their wives and a few, their children. The members ranged from teenagers to an old rancher in his late 70s, who slowly walked on badly bowed legs with the help of a wooden cane.

Idaho Deputy Governor Butch Otter talked for a few moments about how the new Republican government in Idaho was pushing hard to reduce federal interference in state affairs. Unimpressed, the militia members engaged Otter in a vigorous, sometimes angry, 90-minute debate. They did not believe the new state administration was moving fast enough to change federal land-use policies, environmental limitations on the logging industry and private land use, federal regulations on business, and so on. Sounding much like a meeting of Ross Perot's United We Stand America, the militia members stood up to shout out their anger over NAFTA and GATT, Forest Service fire-fighting policies, the "insane" enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, the public education system, the idea that U.N. treaties could override the Constitution, high taxes, and their fears of being singled out by federal law-enforcement agents.

"All they have to do is find certain kinds of chemicals on my land, and they can take everything I own by claiming I'm about to start making illegal drugs," said a man in his mid-60s.

They were angry and strident, but these people did not sound like dangerous radicals threatening to destroy the system. I met computer programmers, owners of small businesses, professionals, writers and artists, salaried employees, and lots of retired military officers, all well established in America's middle class. "Our members are the people who have paid the price of big government but who don't get the benefits," says a leader in Michigan.

One can reasonably ask why these people don't stick to more traditional political action instead of spending so much money buying weapons and ammunition and so much time and effort preparing to fight. Part of the explanation lies in the distinction between local authorities and the federal government.

While the people joining militias hold what have long been minority views on the national level, many of them live where they are in a political majority. They help elect sheriffs, county commissioners, state legislators, and congressional representatives who share their political ideals. But their elected representatives are outvoted in state capitals, and even more often, in Washington, D.C. National leaders elected by voter majorities in faraway places impose on them laws and regulations that destroy jobs and property values while raising taxes. And, even worse, they pass laws the militia members believe unconstitutional--a category in which they include not only gun-control laws but most regulations and subsidies. This alienation is also the source of their antipathy for international organizations. People who object to politicians from New York City and Southern California telling them how to live in Montana or Michigan go ballistic at the suggestion of a new world order in which officials from China, India, and Canada will make the rules.

And when they hear politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) make rash remarks about confiscating all "assault weapons," they imagine the federal government, perhaps using foreign troops, launching an attack on them. "The day federal martial law is declared is the day the militia will deploy as an armed, fighting force ready to repel invaders, be they the federal government or foreign troops," says the Michigan-unit training officer. If that ever happens, he expects to be fighting side by side with state and local leaders he helped to elect.

Most of the time, however, the militia members aren't exactly preparing for war, though their meetings often have a survivalist air. The Michigan-unit training officer explains that his unit meets twice a week. They have an advertised meeting on Fridays where different speakers discuss and interpret events in the news. Around 100 people come out on a regular basis.

On Tuesdays, they hold an unadvertised meeting for active members and friends. "It's a core group of about 20 people," says the officer. At this meeting, members learn emergency medical treatment (taught by members of the local fire department), map reading, radio communication skills, family care, water purification, and food preparation using items that can be stored for long periods of time. Recently, he says, 40 members earned American Heart Association certification in CPR. They also go on occasional weekend training camps where they practice such field skills as camouflage, unit maneuvers, weapons safety, compass navigation, and target practice.

"We really are a bunch of Boy Scouts," he admitted when I suggested that's what it sounded like.

Like all good Boy Scouts, he insists that they obey the law. "We are not looking for confrontation. That's the last thing we want." He paused for a moment, then added, "We will fight if they push us."

It's that suggestion of armed defense that troubles critics. Sane, civilized Americans aren't supposed to mention the possibility that their government could turn violent--and certainly aren't supposed to suggest that they might take up arms against it in self-defense.

When Richard Cohen, writing about the militia movement in The Washington Post, states that "they are armed to stay armed, a tautology that apparently is the sum and substance of their ideology," he demonstrates his ignorance of the political and social culture of those who join the militias. People don't join a militia because they love guns, but because they believe that guns are necessary tools if they are to keep all the other freedoms they enjoy.

Cohen suggests that the Second Amendment "is an 18th century anachronism, incompatible with 20th and 21st century America." But militia members are looking at a 20th-century example in which a democracy devolved in less than a decade into a tyranny that first outlawed private ownership of firearms, then marched 6 million law-abiding people, beginning with its own citizens, to their death. Contrary to the portrait of them as raving anti-Semites, militia members are haunted by the same example that frightens their detractors at the Anti-Defamation League.

"My dad was on the lead tank that knocked down the gate at Dachau," says the Michigan-unit training officer. "I know what tyranny can do." (His father, he says, was an official war photographer with the 163rd Signal Corps in the 7th Army.) Militia members believe fervently in the reality of the Holocaust, they are determined that it never happen again--and they identify with the Jews.

This doesn't mean that they don't buy various conspiracy theories; many militia members do (though generally not ones with racist or anti-Semitic overtones). But the movement as a whole lacks a racist edge. In my many long conversations with activists around the country, I talked with one person--a lawyer in South Carolina--who made statements that smacked of racism. Members are often at pains to point out that their meetings include minorities. "We've got three blacks and one Muslim in our group, and we live in a part of Michigan where few minorities live," says the training officer.

James Johnson, the elected communications officer for the Unorganized Militia of Ohio, is a black utility worker who lives in inner-city Columbus. He sees federal government abuses in places like Ruby Ridge and Waco as a new phenomenon only to the extent that the targets were white. Like many militia members, he and his wife Helen are fundamentalist Christians who home school their children and see their militia work as an extension of their religious life. From their home, they put out a newsletter for militia members titled E Pluribus Unum.

Johnson describes himself "as one of a growing number of blacks who are beginning to understand that we must solve our problems on an individual and community level, not by relying on government." He believes that the right to keep and bear arms is especially important to minority groups. "I've had considerable success in recruiting other blacks into militia organizations," he says.

Since most militia units are made up of friends who have known each other for years, the movement's loose structure serves to isolate and exclude both overt racists and advocates of violence. "If anyone starts talking nonsense that smacks of sedition or illegal attacks on the government, we kick them out," Bob Clarke told me last February. This is exactly what appears to have happened with Timothy McVeigh and the Nichols brothers. Militia units in Michigan wanted nothing to do with them.

Other militia units are open to the public and don't exclude anyone. But they can discourage racist talk. Says Sheryl Tuttle, a movement supporter who lives in southern Idaho, "I remember once when somebody did make a racist remark in one of our meetings. Someone else got up immediately to call him on it. He never came back to another meeting."

Tuttle and her husband Bill are typical militia supporters. In their mid-40s, they've raised one child and are now grandparents. Sheryl is active in her church's work with children and has served as an informal foster mother for several kids. She left a career in nursing several years ago to work with Bill designing and producing welded metal art pieces, which they sell at craft shows. When she started traveling between shows with sizable sums of money, Sheryl bought a semi-automatic pistol and started carrying it. Twice since then, she and Bill have scared off potential criminals by displaying (but not pointing) their weapons. In one case the threat was a prowler at their home, in the other a tailgater on a steep, deserted mountain road.

Bill, a voracious reader partial to conspiracy theories of history, is a military veteran and the son of a professional Army officer. The Tuttles got interested in the militia movement as a result of their growing involvement in politics and their frustration with government regulations that directly affect their lives and businesses. "Every time we go to a preschool board meeting" at the church, says Sheryl, "we've got another regulation we are supposed to obey. Now they want us to put an elevator in the church where we hold the school."

"Our government was founded on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and they have thrown our Constitution out," Bill said, explaining why he joined the U.S. Militia Association.

"Now we have to spend time and energy defending ourselves, instead of doing something more constructive," Sheryl told me when I asked her about the media blitz demonizing the militia movement. "It's going to scare a lot of people, and it scares me, but am I going to back off? No!"

The Tuttles and most other militia supporters are people who have grown up with guns, served in the military, and use guns as tools for hunting, small predator control, and self-protection. Guns don't frighten them, and they don't understand people who are frightened by guns. Having a gun in the house for self-defense is like buying fire insurance; it's something they believe they must have but hope they never have to use. They also know that when one is armed and dangerous, others, even government bureaucrats, tend to leave a person alone. They bear arms for personal defense, not because they expect to engage in shoot-outs, but because they believe that the display of a firearm will discourage criminal attack.

As one Internet posting put it: "The point of being armed is not to defeat an opposing army. It is...to prevent the agents of the government from dispersing the militia without killing them....An armed militia that acts with constraint can symbolically suggest that the Constitution is being abused. They do not need to ever level a weapon--they merely need to have it on hand to prevent the government from running roughshod over them."

After talking for hours with these people, watching more hours of their videotapes, and reading through reams of their literature and megabytes of electronic debate, my own conclusion is that the militia movement is a cry for attention, recognition, and respect, not a call for bloody revolution. Militia activists argue for the right of self-defense, not for the right to initiate violence or to break the law.

Some in the militia movement believe that a fight is inevitable, even though they insist they will not fire first. Others, probably the majority, hope that by being well-armed and sounding a loud warning, they will ensure that no one will ever dare try to lock them up if they refuse to give up their arms and their freedoms. They organize and arm themselves because they are frightened by what the government may do to them. But once they are armed and organized, they lose their fear, and they can turn their attention to peaceful efforts to roll back government.

"The last election does give us hope," Bob Clarke told me last February. "We are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but we are shifting our focus to political action. We're writing letters, sending faxes, and calling congressmen and assemblymen." Idaho's Samuel Sherwood explained, "Once people have armed and organized themselves, they have three choices: Take aggressive military action with horrendous results. Move to political action. Or decay and fall apart." Clearly, Sherwood prefers the political option.

John Wallner, an ex-Marine tank crewman who heads the San Diego Militia (half of whose 100 members are Jewish), is fighting for freedom in the courts. His organization has filed suit against the federal government challenging the ban on assault weapons. He considers his group first and foremost a public service group. Their most recent project was a fund raiser for the homeless of San Diego.

When I suggested they sounded like armed and dangerous Rotarians, he laughed and agreed with the characterization.

"So why bother with the militia bit?" I asked.

"The best way to keep the right to bear arms is for law-abiding citizens who are serving their community to openly exercise the right," he answered. He wants the right to bear arms because he believes once he loses that right, he will soon lose all the rest.

Unlike many in the movement, Wallner doesn't buy the conspiracy theories. "We should not attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity," he says.

Many militia activists, however, are not just scared of the government. They are looking for explanations for why their government has gotten so far off the constitutional track. They find easy answers in theories about a cabal of Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations conspirators who are manipulating events to create a New World Order in which the United Nations will rule while the American Constitution is treated as a historical curiosity.

People like Mark Koernke, the shortwave broadcaster who calls himself Mark from Michigan, travel the country speaking in public meetings. They distribute videos and publications claiming to prove that the conspirators have already secretly brought U.N. troops into the United States to impose the New World Order, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has prepared concentration camps where a new super secret national police force, the Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force (MJTF), will imprison those who dare to resist. Such conspiracy theories are also spread by word of mouth, reading lists, computer bulletin boards, faxes, and private shortwave radio broadcasts.

But militia activists aren't scared because they believe conspiracy theories. They believe conspiracy theories because they're scared. The fear came first; then they went looking for explanations. And all good conspiracy theories must have some basis in truth. These explain why taxes keep rising, why government regulations grow at warp speed, and why American politicians talk about a new world order while demanding that Americans be disarmed. The people describing the supposed conspiracies are offering explanations for what militia supporters see happening--the continual erosion of constitutional rights, from property rights to the right to bear arms to the rights of the accused.

Stories of U.N. troops sneaking into the United States and black helicopters scouting the countryside can be easily debunked, and publications popular with militia members, such as the John Birch Society's The New American, have already done so. But debunking the conspiracy theories does not solve the basic problem. Government still grows bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive. When politicians and media wonks refuse to recognize the legitimacy of complaints about big government, those who believe in conspiracies will not bother to listen to those trying to convince them their theories are wrong.

The most effective way to reduce militia members' paranoia would be to hold full, public hearings on Waco--the incident that galvanized many activists. "We didn't see any need to get seriously involved until we watched the Waco tragedy on live TV," a member of the U.S. Militia Association who lives in Boise, and is the mom side of a mom-and-pop business, told me. "We have been actively involved in the militia movement ever since."

Having watched it on live TV, she considers herself an eyewitness who has drawn an obvious conclusion that if the FBI didn't deliberately murder the Branch Davidians, agents did act with criminal negligence. The only way to convince her otherwise would be either for Congress to hold open hearings or to charge and try in court the federal officers who may have committed negligent acts that led to the death of innocent children. Nevertheless, this young militia mother--and every other of my contacts--was just as horrified by the Oklahoma bombing as she was by Waco.

Why would civil rights groups and the news media portray citizens like this young mother, Bill and Sheryl Tuttle, or James and Helen Johnson as dangerous threats who ought to be closely watched?

In his recent book Crying Wolf: Hate Crime Hoaxes in America, sociologist Laird Wilcox explains that as society increasingly condemns and deters hate crimes, organizations that depend on a fear of hate crime to feed their contribution coffers must constantly seek new threats. While the deceit may not be deliberate, the search for scare stories can lead to exaggerations and uncritical reporting of what may be hoaxes, unproven allegations, or simply bad information.

But the reason some people are savaging the citizen-militia movement may be even more perverse. Many supporters of an all-powerful central government have a political faith, not a political philosophy. They lack the intellectual tools necessary to challenge and debate alternative political theories. Incapable of understanding the reasons for the voters' revolt in the last election, and convinced of the truth of their own faith, they assume that those who have contrary political beliefs must be evil people.

Obviously, in this world view, those who hold guns while espousing an alternative set of political beliefs must be the most evil people of all. By suggesting that such people inspired the Oklahoma bomb blast, those with blind faith in big government expect to discredit and destroy not just the threat they see in the militia members, but also the much more real threat represented by the last election, the Contract with America, and the growing demand by millions of voters for less government, lower taxes, more effective law enforcement, and more choice for the individual.

Marvin Stern of the Anti-Defamation League insisted when I talked to him that the ADL does make a distinction between those who join militias with legitimate political complaints and those trying to use the militias to push a racist agenda. But the ADL report begins by describing the militia movement as "bands of armed right-wing militants." The author then quotes several militia leaders on gun control, the possibility of future anti-government violence, and their conservative attitudes on education, abortion, and the environment. Having established that these people all hold political views most liberals think are extreme and dangerous, the report announces that "some of them--even in leadership roles--[are] persons with histories of racial and religious bigotry and political extremism." The report's author leaves it up to the reader to decide who are the real racists and who are just dangerous, right-wing political extremists.

Stern initially told me that Idaho was one of the states where racists were most influential in the militia movement. Reminding him that I live in Idaho, I asked for more specific details. Did he include Samuel Sherwood, the only militia leader with any significant following in Idaho, in that accusation? While not Jewish, Sherwood once lived as a legal resident in Israel on a kibbutz.

Obviously not willing to debate an issue with someone who knew the territory, Stern backed down, claiming he had erred in naming Idaho. Instead, he said, John and David Trochmann, who founded the Militia of Montana, were the racists. He did not cite any specific racist incidents, nor did he quote anything written or spoken by the Trochmanns that sounded racist or anti-Semitic, nor did he mention any additional evidence other than the already printed accusations of guilt by association.

A devout Christian, John Trochmann is a strong advocate of New World Order conspiracy theories. But he adamantly denied that he is a member of any racist organization. He readily admitted that he and his family twice visited the Aryan Nation compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, several years ago, but insisted that they had gone there as part of a home-school learning project. "I am not on their mailing list, I have never signed any of their statements, and I certainly never joined the organization," he told me in loud, angry tones.

While I have no way of knowing what John Trochmann truly believes, I could find no overtly racist or anti-Semitic statements in the publications or the videotapes distributed by the Militia of Montana. And militantly racist groups rarely hide their agendas, which are, after all, how they attract members.

The level of scholarship in the Klanwatch report is perhaps best demonstrated by the statement, "The foot soldiers in these groups are just the type of people that Klan and neo-Nazi leaders have recruited in recent years." For students of logic, this could be translated into the syllogism: "All Klansmen and neo-Nazis are white, own guns, and don't like the federal government. Therefore all whites who own guns and don't like the federal government should be feared as Klansmen or neo-Nazis."

Using innuendo, guilt by association, and stereotypes to tar people as racist, anti-Semitic, and potentially violent could be considered as much a hate act as the burning of crosses. Such indiscriminate accusations pin targets on people like the Tuttles by identifying them as objects to be attacked with impunity. This, in turn, creates the distrust that can result in disastrous confrontations between law enforcement officers and legally armed citizens. That's what happened at Waco. Another such disaster could have happened in Roundup, Montana in early March. That it didn't suggests that the militias are more peaceful and rational than their critics make out.

Gun-toting radicals busted in Montana," read the Spokane Spokesman-Review banner headline. Seven men had been arrested in Roundup on suspicion that they intended to kidnap and hang a judge or other public officials. The newspaper added that local officials were treating the case as though the suspects were high-risk terrorists. One of the men arrested was John Trochmann. The news story referred to the two civil rights watchdog reports and repeated their description of Trochmann and other officers of the Militia of Montana as men who had "long been involved in the white supremacist movement" and who promoted armed resistance to federal and state authorities.

Within 48 hours after the arrests, the leaders and most of the members of the citizen-militia groups knew about the arrests and wondered if they marked the beginning of a long-rumored roundup of militia leaders by federal law enforcement agencies. But it was the county sheriff, not the BATF or the FBI, who made the arrests in Roundup, a town about 500 miles away from Trochmann's home base in Noxon.

Trochmann, who actively monitors a number of anti-government groups, had gone as an observer with a group of Freemen to file papers at the Musselshell County Court House. The Freemen are tax resisters who oppose all government regulation of individual behavior, even the requirement that one carry a driver's license. After the court rejected the papers on legal grounds, a vocal but nonviolent altercation developed outside the courtroom. Sheriff's deputies arrested the five men and charged them with a basketful of felonies, including criminal endangerment, intimidation, and criminal syndicalism. Trochmann wasn't directly involved in the altercation but had been waiting outside in a parked car with one other person. Nevertheless, the sheriff arrested them both as part of the suspected conspiracy.

If the whole militia movement, or just the Militia of Montana, had been looking for an excuse to go to war, this would have been the opportunity. But no one mobilized and marched on Roundup. Instead, John Trochmann's nephew, Randy, made a public plea on a Spokane TV station and on the Internet, asking that all militia members stay home and send money to help pay for legal fees.

Simply put, the local law overreacted when a bunch of well-armed strangers rode into town. On March 29, Montana officials dropped all charges against five of the seven people, including John Trochmann, and the felony charges against the other two men. Eventually the Musselshell County authorities must prove to a jury that the two men still facing charges did commit misdemeanor weapon violations. They may also have to prove in civil court that there was reasonable cause for the arrest of the five already released.

That's the way that charges of crimes and government abuses are supposed to be settled in this country. The people I talked with would rather do it that way.

The events that followed the arrest of Timothy McVeigh suggest that the members of citizen-militia associations may have been fearful of the wrong institution. Their most dangerous enemy may not be the federal government but the national news media.

"When the FBI authorities were quoted, they were all very circumspect," says Bob Clarke. "The press very gladly lumped everybody together as a right-wing extremist, racist type of a cult. It's all the same to them. The media hasn't done a very good job of understanding this whole militia thing. There is a lot of misinformation coming off the airwaves."

There is indeed. After days of watching the media coverage on every one of the three major TV networks and reading through reams of news reports and critical editorial comment, I had neither heard nor read a single shred of court-admissible evidence that suggested that any unit of the militia movement was engaged in any conspiracy to overthrow the government or to commit any other crime in support of their political agenda.

Innuendo and scare quotes, largely taken out of context, dominated the reports. Even the advocates of conspiracy theories, such as Mark Koernke, never call for the overthrow of government in their material. While TV news people can play quotes out of context, anyone who watches hours of his militia videos knows that when a battle-ready Mark Koernke talks about defending one's sector, he's talking about a reaction force resisting an invasion, not the beginning of the revolution.

And some reports seemed deliberately misleading. ABC, for instance, showed a headline from The Resister, a publication of the self-proclaimed Special Forces Underground that is read by some militia members. It read: "Would You Shoot Fellow Americans?" ABC didn't tell viewers that the article is an exposé of a survey distributed by a Marine to his troops--not a call to arms.

One may not like the militia movement's political agenda, one may find its members' conspiracy theories troubling, and one may be offended by the idea that middle-class men and women are training with deadly weapons because of a fear that the government may someday attack them. But journalists have a responsibility to be accurate and careful, not merely entertaining and provocative. It is a responsibility they have too often shirked in reports on the militias.

As the Oklahoma bombing investigation proceeds, it is possible that the FBI may find evidence that a militia member or a citizen-militia association was involved in some way. If such evidence is discovered, the people I've met in the militia movement will be the first to cheer as the culprits are led away to jail. But until such evidence is presented in court, the national media have done a great injustice to a group of American citizens who spend their spare time practicing to fight a defensive war rather than playing paintball and who wear camouflage and combat boots rather than jogging shorts and running shoes while they get their outdoor exercise.

If those in the militia movement thought they had good reason to fear government before, they are now even more convinced that powerful forces are planning to take away their freedoms. New conspiracy theories are already spreading via the Internet, the fax machines, and the shortwave radio stations. These theories describe the Oklahoma tragedy as one more piece of the conspiracy, perhaps deliberately planned and executed by federal agents to destroy the patriot movement and regain the power lost in the last election.

"It's going to help the whole movement nationwide, to one degree or another," Samuel Sherwood answered when I asked what the impact of the anti-militia publicity would be. "For those who were wondering whether there was a conspiracy, this is going to certainly confirm that there is a conspiracy of some sort or another." He then added, "Bill Clinton is using this in the same way Hitler used the Reichstag fire. Only we're different people. The Germans weren't armed. We are."

"The bomb in Oklahoma blew up America," says the Michigan-unit training officer. "Every person in this country who turned on the TV and saw the broken bodies of tiny children being carried out of the building is a casualty. They will carry the wound the rest of their lives, just like I will....Bill Clinton is standing in the blood of those children when he attempts to use this tragedy for his own political advantage."