Southern Poverty Law Center Finds Fewer Militias, Hypes Militia Threat Anyway

Fearmongering with the SPLC


The Southern Poverty Law Center has released its annual report on "The Year in Hate and Extremism," in which the organization estimates the size of the "extremist" threat. Since its count of hate groups has dropped since last year—the number went down from 1,018 to 1,007—the center is hyping a 7 percent increase in another category: what it calls "conspiracy-minded antigovernment 'Patriot' groups." The SPLC's definition of "Patriot" is pretty broad: The list ranges from the conservative websites WorldNetDaily and FreeRepublic.com to the Moorish Science Temple and its offshoots. The Moors, a black militant movement, are presumably included because they sometimes borrow ideas from the sovereign citizens and other folks often associated with the right.

For SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok, that 7 percent surge is a sign that a growing terrorist threat demands the Department of Homeland Security's attention:

Eighteen years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote then-Attorney General Janet Reno to warn about extremists in the militia movement, saying that the "mixture of armed groups and those who hate" was "a recipe for disaster." Just six months later, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. Today, with our country's political polarization at historic levels and government officials being furiously demonized by Patriots, we may be approaching a comparable moment.

In the 1990s, warnings that might have averted some of the violence from the radical right failed to stick. Now, as we face another large and growing threat from the extremists of the Patriot movement, the country needs to do better. One important start would be to demand that the Department of Homeland Security, which gutted its non-Islamic domestic terrorism unit after unjustified criticism from the political right, rebuild its important intelligence capabilities.

A different story emerges if you study the list itself. For one thing, while the number of Patriot groups has gone up since last year, the number of militia groups has gone down, from 334 to 321. That doesn't necessarily mean that there are fewer people involved in militias: One quirk of the SPLC's decision to measure activity by counting groups is that if an organization splinters in a faction fight that shows up as growth, but if two smaller groups join forces it looks like shrinkage. But given that Potok invokes the militias in both the opening and the conclusion of his article, and given that the article makes a big deal of the increased Patriot count, it seems disingenuous not to mention that the militia count is actually declining.

More important, neither the number of militias nor the number of Patriot groups writ large is a good proxy for the number of potential terrorists. As I wrote in response to an earlier edition of the SPLC's list, the Oath Keepers—whose chapters take up 67 spots on the 2013 list—have a history of distancing 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 [a militia charged in 2010 with plotting a terror attack] 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….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."…

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.

Potok cites one more set of data to argue that "the threat of violence seems to be looming":

Already, to the surprise of some analysts, a major new study of domestic political violence from the radical right—"Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right," by the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point—found that right-wing violence is up dramatically from the 1990s. Specifically, the report found that there were an average of 70 "attacks or violent plots originating from individuals and groups who self-identify with the far-right of American politics" in the 1990s, but that the comparable number for the 2000-2011 period was 308, with especially high numbers from 2007 on.

Potok is pulling a bait and switch here. As noted above, the SPLC keeps its count of hate groups, such as the various competing Klans, separate from its list of anti-government "Patriot" groups. The West Point report follows suit, though instead of Patriot it uses the label antifederalist. Potok's piece is specifically about an increase in the number of Patriot groups, and it's in that context that he invokes the West Point paper. But he cites the paper's claims about right-wing violence overall, not its data on antifederalist violence.

It's not hard to see why he does this. In recent years, as the SPLC was reporting a continuing growth in Patriot activity, the West Point dataset showed a steady level of one to four violent incidents involving "anti-federalists" per year. In 2010, the number spiked to 13, but the year after that the number dropped back down to two. "Thus," the West Point paper concludes, "while there may be a rise in the number of active militia groups, except for 2010 we still do not see this systematically manifested in the level of violence." Given how low these numbers are to begin with, it's not even clear whether the 2010 results reflected something that happened that year or if they were a random outlier. (For more on that West Point report, which really doesn't demonstrate what a lot of people who quote it seem to think it demonstrates, go here.)

Finally, a note about double counting. I don't really mind the fact that the SPLC lists separate chapters of the same organization; it makes sense to do that if you're aiming to show how much activity there is on the ground. I have a harder time seeing the justification for listing both the Tenth Amendment Center and Nullify NOW!, since Nullify NOW! is a campaign run by the Tenth Amendment Center. I was also amused to see that the list includes not just WorldNetDaily but the Western Center for Journalism, which spawned WorldNetDaily; there is also a slot for Aggressive Commentary, a radio show hosted by a WorldNetDaily columnist. Maybe the SPLC should spin off WorldNetDaily into its own list.

Bonus link #1: I was among the critics of the SPLC study who were quoted in a CNN story earlier this week.

Bonus link #2: The same issue of the SPLC's magazine Intelligence Report that includes these lists also quotes me in a feature about the John Birch Society. I blogged about that last night.

Bonus links #3, 4, and 5: Both the Patriot movement and the SPLC play roles in The United States of Paranoia, a book I've just written that HarperCollins will be publishing in August. You can read more about the book here, and you can pre-order a copy from Amazon here and from Barnes & Noble here.