THE MILITIAS ARE COMING
Storm: America's Militia Threat, by Morris Dees with James Corcoran,
New York: HarperCollins, 254 pages, $24.00
upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate
, by Kenneth S. Stern, New York: Simon & Schuster, 303 pages,
By David B. Kopel
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
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 is research
director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado. From 1984-1995 he
was a monthly donor to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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