The Militias Are Coming
Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, by Morris Dees with James Corcoran, New York: HarperCollins, 254 pages, $24.00
A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate , by Kenneth S. Stern, New York: Simon & Schuster, 303 pages, $24.00
Adam Parfrey, author of an October 1994 story about the militia movement in The Village Voice, became an instant militia "expert" after the April 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Major news organizations contacted him, seeking a quote linking the militias to the bombing. When he suggested there was no connection, reporters quickly lost interest. The mainstream media's combination of certitude and ignorance was summed up by a statement from a Washington Post researcher who talked to Parfrey: "The militias–whoever the fuck they are–are a ticking time bomb composed of paranoid lunatics."
Many Americans, including many journalists who have written about militias, have never met an actual militia member, just as most militia members have never met an actual international banker. In a condition of ignorance, it is possible for militia members to believe dark tales of an international banking conspiracy that would be laughable to a person who knew international bankers from meeting them at Manhattan cocktail parties. Conversely, well-educated Americans who know all about international banking, but nothing about living on a farm in Idaho, may fall for stupendous exaggerations about evil militia conspiracies. Much of what Americans "know" about militias is based on uncritical media repetition of statements from activists who demonstrate that the militia movement does not have a monopoly on paranoia and misinformation.
This problem is illustrated by a pair of books published shortly before the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing: Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate, by Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee. "The very future of the United States is at risk, because of treason in our midst," warns a militiaman quoted by Dees. The quote captures the apocalyptic exaggeration of some militia leaders, but Dees himself is hardly less alarmist. He opens his book with a paraphrase of the Gettysburg Address, observing that "we are engaged in a great civil war" and wondering "whether [our] nation…can long endure." Dees continues: "Unless checked," the militia movement "could lead to widespread devastation or ruin."
The mastermind of the militia movement, according to Dees, is Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, Professor Moriarty to Dees's Sherlock Holmes. After the federal assault on Idaho separatist Randy Weaver and his family in 1992, Dees claims, Beam and a few other racists used the fear created by the incident to build the militia movement. (Beam and Dees are not the central characters of Stern's book, but Stern does write that "[t]he most significant precursor of the militias was the Ku Klux Klan.") Although even Dees's statistics show that most militias are not run by racists, he considers non-racist militia members dupes of Beam et al.
Unlike the Southern Poverty Law Center, I do not have "dossiers" on thousands of suspected militia members and "militia sympathizers." Nor do I have a staff of 10 people devoted to collecting information on militias, or infiltrators placed in the militia movement. So there is a great deal of material in Dees's book, and Stern's as well, that I cannot authoritatively refute. Neither book has footnotes, which makes verification of the claims all the more difficult. Still, some of the charges are clearly false, while others consist of speculation or facts presented out of context.
"Conspiracy reeks throughout this bloody murder," announced racist preacher Pete Peters after the deaths of Randy Weaver's son and wife at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Dees and Stern believe the same about Oklahoma City. At an Estes Park, Colorado, meeting following the Weaver incident, Dees reports, "Plans were laid for a citizens' militia movement like none this country has known. It's a movement that has already led to the most destructive act of terrorism in our nation's history." Similar claims pervade the direct-mail fundraising campaign run by Dees's organization. "Patriot Underground Strikes in '95" is the headline for a special year-end report from the Southern Poverty Law Center; right below the headline are pictures of the Arizona train derailment and the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. There is no suspect in the Arizona train derailment, let alone a "patriot" movement suspect. Nor has anyone in the patriot movement been implicated in the Oklahoma City bombing. For that matter, there is no sinister patriot "underground." The patriot movement–made up of nativist grassroots citizens groups that are highly suspicious of federal power and international finance–has public meetings, advertises in newspapers, and communicates through newspapers and talk radio–not exactly the tools of an underground.
Yet Dees and Stern build their books around the claim that the militia/patriot movements are unindicted co-conspirators in the Oklahoma City murders. The link between accused bomber Timothy McVeigh and the militia movement is based mainly on two pieces of information: First, he and his friend Terry Nichols attended two Militia of Michigan meetings–which, significantly, they were told to leave because they were advocating violence. Second, allegedly Mark Koernke, a short-wave radio personality who runs a mail-order business that sells militia gear, was seen with someone who looks like McVeigh. In addition, a Michigan talk show host supposedly said (he denies it) that the host's Rolodex listed McVeigh as a contact for Koernke. This evidence does not come remotely close to showing that militia members encouraged McVeigh to do anything illegal, let alone to perpetrate one of the most vicious mass murders in history.
Dees and Stern also cite circumstantial evidence. Dees says McVeigh photocopied unspecified "paramilitary publications" at a copy center in Arizona. "He would not have needed extra copies," Dees suggests, "unless, maybe, he was supplying them to his confederates." Or unless, maybe, he was selling or giving away the material from his booth at gun shows, where he was known to distribute literature. Another key piece of "evidence" emphasized by Dees and Stern is that, after being arrested, McVeigh would supply no information except his name. This conduct, the authors note, is consistent with what Militia of Michigan members are told to do should they be captured. True enough, but the authors overlook the fact that instructions to supply only name, rank, and serial number are given to members of the U.S. Army, in which McVeigh served. The Army also taught McVeigh how to make and use explosives, and put him through a course of psychological conditioning designed to destroy the normal reluctance to kill another human being. Yet Stern and Dees, convinced that McVeigh's act was caused by militia ideology, do not pause to consider whether government training may have played a role.
The authors ominously note that McVeigh read gun magazines, especially Soldier of Fortune, but omit the fact that Soldier of Fortune, while sharply critical of government conduct at Ruby Ridge and Waco, has published articles debunking militia leaders' reports of foreign troops in the United States and other claims that would tend to create an atmosphere of crisis. McVeigh's main ideological source wasn't a gun magazine or any other form of militia literature. McVeigh fell in love with The Turner Diaries, a fictional, white-racist, anti-Semitic account of a race war in which the FBI building is destroyed with a fertilizer bomb. Well before the militia movement even existed, McVeigh was captivated with the book, urging his friends to read it and selling it at a discount.
In another attempt to link the militia movement to McVeigh, Stern borrows a funnel metaphor from Ken Toole, a leader of the anti-militia movement in the Northwest: At the mouth are people concerned about tax and regulatory issues; deeper, in the narrower part of the funnel, are the conspiracy theorists; at the far end, out pops Timothy McVeigh. The metaphor is emotionally powerful, but logically it amounts to guilt by association, no more valid than a funnel with clean-water advocates at the mouth, radical environmentalists in the middle, and the Unabomber popping out the end.
Stern offers a quote attributed to Samuel Sherwood of the U.S. Militia Association as further evidence of the movement's criminal tendencies: "Go up and look legislators in the face, because someday you may be forced to blow it off." The quote is a favorite of anti-militia activists and their supporters in the media. But as Mack Tanner revealed in REASON ("Extreme Prejudice," July 1995), the quote is a fabrication. It was misreported by a local journalist and repeated by Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, thereby becoming part of official Washington's false consciousness. "In the closing minutes of the meeting," Tanner wrote, "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. Unlike Journal columnist Hunt, I was actually at the meeting."
As the books build to their climaxes, they warn that more militia violence is coming, though the evidence that there has already been a wave of militia violence is tenuous. The centerpiece of the theory is the unsupported "link" between militias and the Oklahoma City bombing. Several other crimes by militia members are detailed, supplemented by the elastic category of crimes by "militia sympathizers." But even if we counted all alleged "militia sympathizers" as actual militia members, the Southern Poverty Law Center's data show that militia members perpetrate violent crimes at a per capita rate far below that of the U.S. population as a whole. Certainly there are criminals who belong to militias, as there are criminals who belong to police departments and to Congress. But the presence of a few criminals within a large class of law-abiding citizens is hardly grounds for a "crackdown."
The prediction of militia terrorism grows out of speculation about the psychology of militia members. "After a while," Dees writes, "angry loners are likely to grow bored roaming around the woods and shooting at paper targets….Predicting when and where militia terrorists will strike next is no easier than guessing when and where the next whirlwind of dust will form. Unfortunately, all that seems certain is that the devils will strike again." Stern warns, "Whenever an ideology justifies baby-killing–even at the fringes of the fringes–that is an especially strong danger signal." Maybe so, but Stern never identifies a militia ideologue–even on the fringes of the fringes–who defends baby killing.
Dees is more careful than Stern to emphasize that most militia members are not racists, but his book still includes some broad smears. The first page of the photo section in the center of the book shows the homicidal leader of the racist Christian Identity religion and the founder of the Order, a neo-Nazi group. The heading is "Martyrs of the Modern Militia Movement." Stern occasionally acknowledges that not all militia members are neo-Nazis, but his stock phrases, such as "the hate of militias," leave the opposite impression.
Stern tars not only the militia and patriot movements, but all critics of big government. After the 1994 elections, he found that "the vitriolic antifederal sentiments of some of these newly elected officials" differed "in detail but not in flavor" from the ideas of racist gangs. Like other critics of the militias, Stern uses charges of anti-Semitism and racism to vilify opponents and delegitimize political stands he does not like, much as the epithet "Communist sympathizer" was used to attack advocates of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and '60s.
"[W]henever Americans have talked of 'states' rights' or 'county supremacy,' that is a cover for bigotry," Stern insists. It's true that the cause of states' rights has sometimes been used as cover for bigotry, as in the defense of Southern white supremacist policies in the 1950s. But to argue that all proponents of states' rights are racist is patently absurd. The 10th Amendment, ratified by both houses of Congress and by three-quarters of state legislatures, guarantees states' rights. Were all of its supporters motivated by bigotry? Were all the Supreme Court justices who vindicated the 10th Amendment in New York v. United States, holding that states cannot be ordered to enter into nuclear waste storage agreements, likewise bigots? Is Dennis Hennigan–the Handgun Control, Inc. attorney who argues that the Second Amendment guarantees a "state's right" to have a militia, and whom Stern quotes liberally–a racist too?
In the militia movement, Dees observes, "rhetoric is routinely used to demonize an opponent, legitimize insensitive stereotypes, and promote prejudice." Stern notes that Linda Thompson's misleading documentary about Waco offers "a model of conspiratorial 'logic' designed to grab audiences who, if they accepted the premises and did not question the sleight-of-hand, easily could [be] convinced." Together, the two descriptions nicely sum up the weaknesses of these books.
David B. Kopel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is research director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado. From 1984-1995 he was a monthly donor to the Southern Poverty Law Center.