Just in time for Halloween, the press is telling spooky stories about the Oath Keepers, an organization of current and former soldiers and cops who have sworn to refuse unconstitutional orders. The latest scare piece to cross my screen appeared this week in Alternet under the headline "Right-Wing Extremist Group on Active Military Duty?" The author, Rob Waters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, jumps directly from describing the organization to writing this:
In July, the SPLC also presented Congress with growing evidence that extremists are infiltrating the U.S. military and urged Congress and the military to take steps to ensure that the armed forces are not inadvertently training future domestic terrorists.
If you click on the link from the phrase "growing evidence," you'll find an article that claims the military is being infiltrated by neo-Nazis. You won't see anything about the Oath Keepers there, which is appropriate, as there isn't anything Nazi about them. The Oath Keepers' founder, Stewart Rhodes, has written several articles for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and earlier this month he told the Las Vegas Review Journal, "I loathe white supremacists." If you read the comment threads at the Oath Keepers site, you'll sometimes see anti-Semites and other bigots crawling out to spew their propaganda, as they do all over the Internet, but you'll also see the other commenters shouting them down.
Meanwhile, it seems odd to worry that you're "training future domestic terrorists" when you're discussing a group whose plan of action is to refuse to use their weapons. Indeed, after an unhinged fellow calling himself "Citizen Quasar" announced his support for the Oath Keepers on his Twitter feed while also announcing his plans to start a shootout at the Oklahoma State Capitol, the organization's founder denounced him as a "nutbag." Rather than spinning fantasies of a violent uprising, the group is adopting one of the core ideas of nonviolent civil resistance: persuading police and soldiers to disobey their commanders. Waters quotes an SPLC colleague, Mark Potok, who accuses the Oath Keepers of spreading paranoia and argues that "these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence." But if that were true, surely it would be welcome to see a prominent player in that purportedly paranoid milieu pushing a strategy based on nonviolence. That would be a good influence, right?
And how paranoid is the group? The list of commands its members have pledged to refuse includes some that don't strike me as likely, e.g., "orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people." But it also includes commands that are easier to imagine—or which have already become standard operating procedure. One item on the list is "orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances." Maybe Waters and Potok haven't noticed, but American police forces infringe on free speech and free assembly at pretty much every major political summit. I wish there had been some Oath Keepers on the force in Pittsburgh during the G20 meeting last month, or at the Republican National Convention last year.
If you review Rhodes' writings online, you'll find complaints about the militarization of police work, a process he links to both the war on drugs and the war on terror; about the expansion of federal power in wartime; about the illegal disarmament of civilians after Hurricane Katrina. In other words, normal civil libertarian concerns about policies already in place, not frantic speculation about the apocalypse to come. (Note that two of the last three links go to essays Rhodes wrote during the Bush presidency. The Oath Keepers were founded this year, but the organizers behind them didn't need a Democratic president to discover the dangers of state power.)
This is the group that has the Southern Poverty Law Center invoking the specters of fascism and terrorism: a network of present and former public employees who are vigilant about the state of our civil liberties. If their vigilance sometimes shades over into paranoia, well, that's a hundred times truer of the SPLC.