The Ragged Edge Living On The Edge Anti-Government Movement Struggles To Find Its Place In American Politics

The Inland Northwest is at a rebellious flashpoint.

The anti-government movement can no longer be dismissed as the work of a few hostile malcontents.

It is part of the region’s character and sinks deep into its mainstream.

Federal distrust is rampant, sincere and zealous. The number of people in this movement is startling, their fervor even more so.

Does the government deserve the hostility?

Sometimes. Opportunistic politicians and officious bureaucrats continue to bring much of the wrath on themselves.

Many politicians now pander to frustrated Americans by condemning the government they oversee, fueling fear and paranoia in the quest for votes.

On the other side, nobody, including anyone in the White House, is eloquently arguing the good of government these days. The case isn’t being made. Especially not out here.

Resentment and distrust mount with such moves as the FBI’s recent plans to expand its ability to tap telephones almost anywhere in the country.

Does this anti-government movement have any virtues?

Yes. Much of the current crusade is healthy, just as any civilian watchdog is valuable. Earnest people are getting involved, studying the Constitution, fighting for their beliefs and their livelihoods.

New technology also is laying common ground for disenfranchised and exasperated people to link up and organize.

Cut through the hot language on the Internet and the fax lines, and you find activists working within the system - instead of trying to blow it up.

Are there dangerous sides to this movement?

Definitely. If you think it was a freak aberration that an angry American set off a fertilizer bomb next to the Oklahoma City federal building, you’re mistaken.

If you doubt there are dozens of potentially volatile situations around here that could explode into Randy Weaver-style standoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough.

Some self-styled “new patriots” use patriotic propaganda to intimidate bureaucrats, human rights activists and environmentalists.

Newcomers to this combative fray may not realize that some of the groups they’re joining sheathe a violent edge.

For example, the Federal Public Lands Council, based in Bountiful, Utah, is a regional leader in pushing for county control of federal lands.

But the council also fans fear and hatred of the feds.

In its October 1994 newsletter, the lead article wasn’t about land, but rather “Why There is a Need for Militia in America.”

The article casts federal agencies as menacing gangs that “have been literally given license to steal private property, kill private citizens and plant phony evidence by any means they deem necessary.”

Racist and anti-Semitic groups also exploit the anger.

Floyd Cochran, former propaganda minister for the Aryan Nations in North Idaho, says he raised $8,000 on one swing through Oregon, denouncing the federal government’s efforts to protect the spotted owl.

“Nobody really cared about the spotted owl or the logger,” he says of his former organization. “If someone is pissed about something, you can send them in many directions. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s for high taxes.”

Aren’t some of these protesters just self-centered gripers?

Yes. Some of them don’t see any need for societal rules to keep people from trampling the rights of others as our population grows.

Tax protesters stiff the federal government, then drive down federal highways and visit federal parks or enjoy federal subsidies for schools and businesses.

Some new patriots simply resent all change and fail to admit the country is a vastly different place than it was 200 years ago.

So what is the future of this movement?

Ironically, it appears to be getting more aggressive at a time when more politicians are listening.

A new Congress is stripping away some of the perks and regal trappings of our nation’s leaders. The federal government is losing clout, downsizing as state block grants reflect people’s calls for local control.

For better or worse, the government is changing, and will continue to do so.

The movement likely will go one of two ways from here. It could encourage more people to turn hostile.

“I think it’s really threatening the Republic,” says University of Washington public affairs professor Walter Williams, author of “Mismanaging America,” a book about the federal government.

“We are seeing terrorism, or impending terrorism. This is the kind of thing that can end up in pitched battles.”

Then again, historians might later conclude the movement peaked in Oklahoma last spring, and faded away as the anger was taken more seriously.

“Nobody is really mad if they have a say in what happens to them,” says George Enneking, commissioner for Idaho County.

He’s right.

For people who believe regulations are unfair, they can work to repeal them. Idaho County residents got rid of their building codes in a recent petition.

If the Forest Service poorly manages the woods, people can challenge it. Environmentalists have effectively documented flaws in timber sales and stopped them.

For people concerned about losing local control, they can work to retain it. Loggers, miners and ranchers have banded together in Ferry County, Wash., to protect their industries.

And when it comes to the righteous chorus of loving the country but hating the government, people should think through the meaning of patriotism.

Perhaps Richard T. Brown, the Spokane author of the Patriots’ Notebook, puts it best.

“I think a patriot is a person who treats his country the same way he treats his family. He cares for it, protects it, provides for it and defends it if necessary.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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