Civil Liberties

The Myth of the Menacing Militias

Think the Hutaree are the leading edge of a vast new paramilitary threat? Think again.


Flash back to the end of March, when the authorities hauled in nine members of the Hutaree, a Christian paramilitary group, and charged them with plotting a mass assassination of police officers. The media quickly added the arrests to the ongoing narrative of "rising right-wing violence," with the Michigan-based militants cast as the leading edge of a smoldering paramilitary threat. Newscasters and columnists touted a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claiming that the number of anti-government "Patriot" organizations is skyrocketing. An "astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009," the center declared, "with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias)—a 244% jump." If you worry about political violence, the SPLC warned, such growth "is cause for grave concern."

A month later, the Hutaree case is in a state of flux, with prosecutors appealing Judge Victoria Roberts' ruling that the accused should be released on bond while awaiting their trial. There are signs that the judge is unimpressed with the state's case, and she has stressed that prosecutors must demonstrate that the arrestees were guilty of an actual conspiracy to kill cops, not just loose talk. Even "hate-filled, venomous speech," she said, is "a right that deserves First Amendment protection."

Obviously we don't know what evidence has yet to be introduced at trial. Perhaps there really is more at issue here than some chest-beating chatter; perhaps there's a good reason to think a genuine murder plot was underway. But either way, we've learned enough about the Hutaree in the last month to know that the media narrative that greeted their arrests hasn't held up. Assume the worst-case scenario: that the defendants really were planning a massacre and that they really were capable of carrying it out. They still aren't the vanguard of the right-wing revolution. The Hutaree are isolated and despised, not just by the American mainstream but by the bulk of the groups on the SPLC's Patriot list. Indeed, the government may have had the help of some anti-Hutaree militiamen as it forged its case against the accused.

I've Got a Little List…

That much-cited Southern Poverty Law Center list lumps together a very varied set of organizations, blurring the boundary between people who might have sympathy for Hutaree-style plots and people who would want no part of them. "Generally," the SPLC explains, the groups on its roster "define themselves as opposed to the 'New World Order,' engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines." That covers a lot of ground. Using this list to track the threat of right-wing terrorism is like tracking the threat of jihadist terrorism by counting the country's mosques.

The SPLC acknowledges that not all the groups on its list "advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities." But its spokespeople regularly suggest that there's a slippery slope at work. The ubiquitous Mark Potok, for example, has told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he wouldn't accuse any member of the Oath Keepers, a group whose chapters take up 53 spots on the watch list, "of being Timothy McVeigh." But the organization is spreading paranoia, he continued, and "these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence."

This is a variation on the long-discredited gateway drug argument, in which the fact that people who abuse heroin are likely to have tried pot first is seen as evidence that pot causes heroin abuse. Potok is also understating the different directions that people in Patriot circles can be pulled. The Oath Keepers have distanced themselves from violent-minded supporters, and the whole point of the organization is to persuade the government's agents to refuse orders the group considers unconstitutional, a central tactic not of terrorism but of nonviolent civil resistance. Meanwhile, 41 groups on the SPLC list are chapters of the John Birch Society. Far from an adjunct to the militias, the Birchers—notorious for their own conspiracy theories—devoted a lot of effort in the '90s to debunking the more elaborate conspiracy yarns popular in much of the militia world. They frown on insurrectionary violence, too, sometimes suggesting that it merely plays into the hands of the Grand Cabal.

The militia subculture itself is far from united. The University of Hartford historian Robert Churchill—author of an excellent book on the militias, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face—has identified two distinct though sometimes overlapping elements within the movement: the "constitutionalists" and the "millenarians." While the first group stresses civil liberties and organizes in public, the second segment is more prone to paranoid, violent, and apocalyptic rhetoric and is more likely to form secret cells. The Hutaree hail from the far end of the millenarian side of the spectrum. There doesn't seem to be any love lost between them and the area's dominant militia, the constitutionalist Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM), which greeted the March arrests by denouncing the Hutaree as a religious cult. Mike Lackomar of the SMVM even told The Detroit News that the Hutaree had called his militia asking for assistance during the raids and had been rebuffed.

Skeptical readers may object that this is exactly what you'd expect an organization to do if its erstwhile allies are facing federal charges. (The anti-militia writer David Neiwert, for example, greeted the news by declaring that Lackomar's group was "throwing the Hutaree folks under the bus.") But we have independent confirmation of the tensions between the SMVM and the Hutaree. Amy Cooter, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, has been doing fieldwork in the state's militia movement for two years now. She first heard of the Hutaree long before the arrests, when members of the SMVM told her a "story about some crazy people who came to train with them once"; the visitors handled themselves unsafely and were "told not to come back." Cooter also notes that the SMVM, a secular group that includes a convert to Islam, distrusted the "strong anti-Muslim sentiment" it detected in the Hutaree. The SMVM did "keep the lines of communication open," she notes, "but that was to keep an eye on them as much as anything else."

What did "keep an eye on them" mean? In mid-April both Lackomar and another militiaman, Lee Miracle, told The Detroit News that they had warned the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the Hutaree over a year ago. (*) Miracle says he urged the agency to check out the Hutaree website, telling his contact, "See if they creep you out the way they creep me out." Another member reportedly infiltrated the Hutaree and is now serving as a cooperating witness in the case. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny these claims. But Cooter backs up a portion of the militiamen's account, telling the News that she had seen emails about the Hutaree that militia members sent to the Bureau.

None of this is unprecedented. Back in the 1990s, several would-be terrorists in the Patriot milieu were arrested after other militiamen got wind of their plans and alerted police.

The New Brown Scare

Some writers have suggested that the Hutaree arrests should rehabilitate the reputation of the Department of Homeland Security's infamous report on right-wing extremism. But if anything, these splits on the right highlight the central problem with the paper. In the words of Michael German, a former FBI agent who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union, the DHS document focuses "on ideas rather than crime"; it was concerned with extremism itself, not with violence, and it gave no sign that you must be violent to meet its definition of "extremist." That approach doesn't just have ominous implications for civil liberties. To the extent that it catches on, it makes it less likely that the members of a group like the SMVM—a militia that felt the need to "keep an eye on" the Hutaree—will be able to cooperate in the fight against bona fide terrorism.

And that leads us to the biggest trouble with the dominant media narrative: It misdirects our attention. The historian Leo Ribuffo coined the term Brown Scare to describe a wave of countersubversive activity in the 1930s and '40s, when an understandable fear of Nazis unleashed some much less defensible calls for, in Ribuffo's words, "restrictions on the right of native 'fascist' agitators to speak, publish, and assemble." In the process the authorities conflated some very different people together, leading to surveillance not just of German sympathizers but of reputable conservatives. Other historians have identified two subsequent Brown Scares, one in the early '60s and one in the 1990s. Like the better-known Red Scares, but pointing rightwards rather than leftwards, a Brown Scare both exaggerates the threats at hand and obscures the distinctions between genuinely violent plotters, radical but peaceful activists, and members of the mainstream.

You can see such a mindset at work in the SPLC's watch list. You can see it in press accounts that blur still more boundaries, so that there seems to be little difference between a terror cell and a Tea Party. You can see it in documents like the Department of Homeland Security's report. You're even beginning to see it in legislation. Late last month the Oklahoma House voted 98-1 to amend a bill that, among other provisions, increased the penalties for recruiting new gang members. Under the revised legislation, the same penalties would befall recruiters for unauthorized militias.

That is where we stand today. We can reenact the Brown and Red Scares of the past, or we can pull back from a mentality that has never been good for either liberty or security; we can plunge further into madness like the Oklahoma bill, or we can adopt the measured skepticism displayed this week by Judge Roberts. Choose wisely.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

* Correction: This article originally misidentified Miracle as a member of the Southeast Michigan Militia. He is a member of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia.

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  1. As a loyal supporter of the Rhinoceros Party, I object to the image attached to the H&R entry:

    1. Rhino Party!

      I remember when they actually got some attention in the 1980s.

  2. I can understand the less crazy militia types’ not wanting anything to do with these Manson-y losers, but?calling the FBI about them? That’s so…cosmo.

    Is the whole less-disreputable “constitutionalist” half of militia world just badgelickers, rats, and feds? That’d be cute.

  3. The government shat the bed on this case. Of course, I’d like to see much more strict interpretations of what a CI can and cannot say before going over the line to entrapment. These cases where the CI is the only person who can build a bomb, or starts the “cop killer” talk walk too fine a line for my taste.

    1. I don’t think that is walking a fine line. That is so far across the line, the the CI doesn’t even know where the line is anymore. The CI wants to be Considered Important, and will manufacture a crime if one is not forthcoming.

  4. Good article.

    The ACLU actually knows the Constitution – the right-wing “millenarians” who merely wave at it (see theocrats like Glenn Beck and Andrew Napalatino) and falsely claim to be “Constitutionalists” do so in order to subvert it.

    1. “The ACLU actually knows the Constitution …”

      Uh huh

      Well, except for the Second Amendment (right to keep and bear arms), Fifth Amendment (property rights) and Tenth Amendment (confining federal government to enummerated powers).

      Otherwise they’re experts on it.

      1. As a gun owner and financial supporter of the ACLU I asked them – they cannot pour the resource into 2nd Amendment defense like the single-threaded NRA.

        Property rights were under attack once in Kelo by Pfizer – and the letter of Takings Clause was followed.

        The 10th is still there – the 14th overshadows it though.

        You have nothing.

        1. “As a gun owner and financial supporter of the ACLU I asked them – they cannot pour the resource into 2nd Amendment defense like the single-threaded NRA.”

          Bullshit. They can choose to spend their money defending any part of the Constitution. Freedom of speech is not substantively more important than the right to keep and bear arms.

          “Property rights were under attack once in Kelo by Pfizer – and the letter of Takings Clause was followed”

          The “letter” of the takings clause has never been followed ever since “public use” got creatively interepreted to mean things other explict direct government activities such as building roads or schools.

          “The 10th is still there – the 14th overshadows it though.”

          Wrong. The 14th does not grant any new powers to the federal government that are not enummerate (as required by the 10th) – such as granting the feds any power to require people to buy health insurance.

          You are 0 for 3.

        2. As a gun owner and financial supporter of the ACLU I asked them – they cannot pour the resource into 2nd Amendment defense like the single-threaded NRA.

          1. It doesn’t take a lot of funds and time to file an amicus curiae brief.
          2. There are a number of discretionary gun licensing schemes that produce blatantly discriminatory results far in excess of some of the processes the ACLU has opposed.

          OTOH, the Texas CLU and the Texas State Rifle Association have teamed up to litigate more than one issue.

          1. I like the ACLU alot, but when it comes to gun rights they are absolute pussies, since they view the rights to bear arms as a collective right instead of an individual right.

            However, when it comes to first amendment stuff, it’s a different story. You’ll have no better allie than the ACLU.

            As for gun rights, I’m a supporter of the Gunowners of America instead of the NRA. The NRA is too entrenched in the GOP for my taste, and they have no problem selling out gun owners if it furthers their own political power.

            1. The NRA is too entrenched in the GOP for my taste, and they have no problem selling out gun owners if it furthers their own political power.//

              As someone who is considering joining the NRA, I’m interested in what you’re referring to. Care to elaborate on that?

        3. You have nothing.

          I never have to think of a reply for shriek, because he usually provides one in his own post.

          Retarded troll or clever spoofer, you be the judge.

    2. Of course the ACLU knows the Constitution. They just chose to ignore major portions of it.

      The ACLU is an anti-American organization that was founded by the ex president of the Amercian Communist Party and a militant feminist. Their agenda is to undermine the freedoms we enjoy and to destroy this country.

  5. the right-wing “millenarians” who merely wave at it (see theocrats like Glenn Beck and Andrew Napalatino)

    Glenn Beck and Andrew Napolitano, of course, being so crazy that they said it was obvious that Faisal Shahzad be read his Miranda rights.

    He is a citizen of the United States, so I say we uphold the laws and the Constitution on citizens? If you are a citizen, you obey the law and follow the Constitution. He has all the rights under the Constitution? We don’t shred the Constitution when it is popular. We do the right thing. (Beck)

    But keep on going with your rhetorical claims against the Glenn Beck and Andrew Napolitano of your imagination.

    Or perhaps shrike is completely against reading Faisal Shahzad his Miranda rights, and think that doing so is “subverting” the Constitution?

    1. Hey – they were right for once. I give them credit for that.

      They don’t respect the Right to Privacy – the essential building block of liberty.

      1. The right to privacy is already well covered by the 4th amendment and property right. The attention liberal pro choicers give to the right to privacy was just a way to secure abortion rights without giving credence to the 4th or property rights.

        1. Its not well-covered enough unless it includes the bedroom, doc’s office, and labs.

          Hey – but I am a crazy ACLU civil liberties type – why am I here with you theocrats?

          1. …why am I here with you theocrats?

            We have no idea. You can certainly leave at any time, it’s not like we’re going to ask you to come back.

            1. Well, pray to your idle, pal. (sic)

              Who knows, random chance may smile on your superstition.

              1. I’m an atheist, like about 40% of the regular posters on this board. Your bizarre, yet deeply held delusions are one of the reasons your absence would not be missed.

                1. Hey let’s not be Kos-y here telling people to leave who don’t tow our line. But for real, fuck Tony.

          2. “…why am I here with you theocrats?”

            Dude, I can’t even get out of bed on Sunday to bang your slutty mom. What makes you think I am going to haul myself up to go worship some invisble space god whose book is rife with contradictions. And I can’t vouche for Beck but the Judge is usually spot on with any Libertarian cause, whether its civil liberties or the bullshit wars your buddy in the White House should have canceled a year ago.

    2. and it’s more than worth pointing out that Glen Beck and The Judge are not remotely birds of a feather. Yes, the Judge is a devote Catholic, but the last thing he is is a theocrat.

    3. As if the government doesn’t pay attention to ecotage.

    4. On the rare occasions that the ELF’s actually get off their ass and blow something up or burn something down, they get plenty of press. At lease out here in the West. And when prosecuted they also tend to go down hard, as “arson-esq” crimes tend to carry a lot of time. The “militia” types get more press because there are more of them and they tend to be loud.

  6. It’s interesting that when the militia gains members it’s Oh My God time, while Earth First and the Earth Liberation Front continue their ecotage without any media coverage whatsoever.

    Blow stuff up + burn stuff down = no sweat

    Practice shooting stuff = send in SWAT.

  7. How dangerous could these guys be, anyway? Didn’t Corporal Agarn take them down single-handedly?

    1. How dangerous could these guys be, anyway?

      Rule of Thumb: In any militia the most competent members are the undercover infiltrators.

      1. “The Man who was Thursday”

        “Syme uses his wits and is elected as the local representative to the worldwide Central Council of Anarchists. The Council consists of seven men, each using the name of a day of the week as a code name; Syme is given the name of Thursday. In his efforts to thwart the council’s intentions, however, he discovers that five of the other six members are also undercover detectives; each was just as mysteriously employed and assigned to defeat the Council of Days. They all soon find out that they are fighting each other and not real anarchists; such was the mastermind plan of the genius Sunday. ”

  8. Hi im from the FBI I can teach you how to make bombs and supply the materials then, I will suggest targets and arrest you. It will be cool.

    1. I’d say that that was funny if it weren’t true.

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  12. Good article – unfortunately we live in the land of the tame and the home of the timid. If we ever expect to get our ‘freedom and prosperity’back, we need to first stop showing fear at anything appearing harmful or dangerous, and then start spreading the word as much as possible to regain our prosperity.
    Until that happens, the milita (a constitutional allowance) – will alwayse be viewed with suspicion.

    1. We do indeedlive in such a land. If we ever expect to get our ‘freedom and prosperity’ back, a point could be made that a militia, well organized or not, may well be necessary.
      My only problem is, awaiting evidence there is an effective, intelligent, well funded one out there to join. I’ve heard of such groups, but of necessity they remain well under the radar.

  13. Militia’s today are no more or less organized than they were in 1995 when they incited and inspired Timothy McVeigh to commit mass murder against the people and government of these United States. All that Ok City took was a dozen or less crazies from across the country willing to rob some banks in support of McVeigh’s “war” and a building full of innocent men, women and children died.

    Militias will never achieve their revolution against the United States. But their minions will occasionally do great harm to innocent Americans to project their psychotic delusion of white supremacy.

    1. +1

  14. All that Ok City took was a dozen or less crazies from across the country willing to rob some banks in support of McVeigh’s “war” and a building full of innocent men, women and children died.

    Are you referring to the Aryan Republican Army? That wasn’t a part of the militia movement, and neither was any other group that McVeigh is plausibly alleged to have been involved in.

    If your point is that isolated and despised people working in small groups or alone can still do substantial damage, then I agree. But that gets to one of the article’s points: that the issue is violence, not “extremism” per se. For more on the “lone wolf” issue, see this article.

    1. I think Pat is saying that because some militia members are racist, that means all militia members are racist.

      You know, it’s all because we have a black president. And since there is absolutely no reason to oppose the president on matters of policy, the only possible explanation for any disagreement must be race.

      Once someone is accused of racism they are considered guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.
      In this case the only way to prove one’s innocence is to leave the militia and give total support to the president.

      1. I don’t want to be the object of a two-minute hate.

        I love Big Brother.

  15. The evidence suggests that McVeigh was committed long before he engaged with any militia member. In fact, the militia in Michigan passed on McVeigh as a member rather than embracing him.

    The “minions” you speak of in the 1760’s were engaged in any number of activities that didn’t result in any “great harm” to anyone but local tyrants. The “crazies” of the time, militia members all, the Sons of Liberty, brought tarring and feathering into vogue as an attempt to humiliate local posturers, and while causing them some discomfort certainly didn’t involve murdering women and children.
    And this “psychotic delusion” of white supremacy” of which you speak. Care to elaborate???

  16. Speaking of paranoid conspiracy theories – I’m pretty convinced that the current “rise of violent militias” scare is part of a deliberate propaganda campaign engineered by the Obama administration and the Democrat Party. They, and the compliant media, have been dropping little hints that Obama is in danger of being assassinated by angry white men who can’t stand having an African American president. They’ve been working to tar all his political opponents – especially the Tea Party movement – with the same brush. The political benefits to liberals are obvious. The harm it’s doing to race relations and political discourse in general are also obvious.

    1. The KOS kids have said it outright, and threatened race riots if that happens.

  17. I’d say “flux” is an excellent way to describe the government case against the Hutaree, as in “flux of the bowels”, as in diarrhea.

  18. There will always be a small group of paranoid folks who give Militias a bad name. Most militias are formed by law abiding citizens who believe in our Founding Documents – The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

    That belief does NOT include contemplating murder against the very people (law enforcement) who protect us on a daily basis and are our neighbors and friends in our communities.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center is a throwback leftist organization to the civil rights era that today seeks to smear American Citizens who are exercizing their civil rights. Listing the Oathkeepers on their website is a blatant attempt to twist public opinion against an armed citizenry, especially those who have served their country and community in the military or in law enforcement.

    The SPLC is quite simply a “subversive” communist front organization.

  19. I’d like to see a study of, say, the past generation, twenty years or thirty years, and the political violence and violent political rhetoric of that period, with a conclusion of how much of it was right-wing and how much of it was left-wing.

  20. Anyone have any idea how many Muslim groups/preachers advocating violence made it onto the SPLC’s list? Or illegal immigrant/latino advocacy groups?

    I mean we may someday see some folks who are influenced by these guys commiting violence. Maybe even on military installations or recruiting sites, or in places like Santa Cruz? Oh, never mind, that kind of violence would probably never happen…

    1. “Anyone have any idea how many Muslim groups/preachers advocating violence made it onto the SPLC’s list?”

      Try actually looking at the site, they list many. Btw I’m not advocating for the SPLC, just pointing out the stupidity of your comment.

      1. Steve-o, thanks- not stupid just lazy, well at least that’s my excuse.. But my point is that there are a lot of folks actually engaged in violence that seem to be glossed over while we focus an “militias”

        1. No worries and I apologize for using “stupid”, it was inappropriate.

        2. I have a friend who still insists that the Times Square bomber is from a militia. And this is after we have a Muslim who’s confessed and his trips/training to bomb camps in Pakistan.

          His “evidence”?

          The bomb was so poorly constructed that it had to have been made by one of those dumb rednecks in a militia. It just couldn’t be made by a Muslim terrorist. It has to be a militiaman! Right?

          1. The bomb was so poorly constructed that it had to have been made by one of those dumb rednecks in a militia.

            Wasn’t it George Will who wrote after the OKC bombing that the difference between McVeigh and the Weathermen was that McVeigh paid attention in shop class and the Weathermen paid attention in social studies?

  21. You know, a lot of people thought that militias in 1775 would never achieve their revolution against the United Kingdom. Just sayin’. I mean, sure, they had some psychotic delusions of white supremacy, but they still won.

    And if you think the United States is — on balance — a thing sufficiently worthwhile to resist militias destroying it, then you must agree that sometimes it’s worth having militias destroy extant governments. And if you don’t, then you must agree that there is no point in stopping the militias from destroying something so worthless.

    1. Hrmph. That was meant to be a reply to Pat at 7:27.

  22. That would be “Christian,” not Christian.

  23. You can see it in press accounts that blur still more boundaries, so that there seems to be little difference between a terror cell and a Tea Party.

  24. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having problems locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an e-mail.

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