The militia movement - a loose network of armed citizens preparing to resist federal tyranny - was dragged out of the woods two years ago by the Oklahoma City bombing.
After it was revealed that suspect Timothy McVeigh had once attended a militia meeting in Michigan and espoused antigovernment views similar to conventional militia wisdom, militia members could hardly train without TV cameras looking over their camouflaged shoulders.
Police were keeping an eye on them, President Bill Clinton came to Michigan State University to deliver a speech denouncing them and the movement was rent by differences over leadership and philosophy.
The movement itself hasn’t gone away. But its ranks - likely to receive renewed attention as McVeigh goes on trial next week in Denver - are probably smaller, more secretive and even more alienated from mainstream America than before the bombing.
That’s the consensus drawn from recent interviews with several leading militia-watchers, and from a new report by a civil-rights group that monitors the movement.
The Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was the only organization systematically monitoring militia activity before the bombing, also considers the movement more dangerous than ever.
“As the federal government begins the trial of the man accused of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the ‘Patriot Movement’ that shaped his ideology continues to pose a threat to public safety,” Klanwatch says in a recent report.
“The number of groups committed to antigovernment extremism … is growing, and individuals connected to this movement are involved in a wide range of criminal activity, much of it violent.”
The report says the movement maintains a “sophisticated communications network,” using computers and shortwave radio, and has “access to destructive weapons” plus the “willingness to use them” to support its antigovernment agenda.
Militia membership is impossible to determine, in part because the militia is more social movement than organization or political party, and therefore has no membership list.
Jonathan White, author of three books on terrorism and a professor of criminal justice at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, said there are fewer than 200 people who devote significant time to militia activities in Michigan, but many more who are casual supporters.
Whatever the numbers, the movement’s message of suspicion of the federal government can draw a crowd, especially if the word “militia” isn’t applied to it. More than 1,000 people turned out in Warren on a Sunday this month to hear a former Branch Davidian speak.
The Branch Davidian religious sect’s compound near Waco, Texas, was the site of a federal siege that ended in fire in 1993 with 85 members dead two years to the day before the Oklahoma explosion that killed 168 people. To the patriot movement, the law enforcement debacle at Waco represents warfare by a government against its own citizens.
In his book, “A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate,” Ken Stern, an analyst for the American Jewish Committee, writes that McVeigh clearly holds the fundamental militia beliefs, even though he has not been identified as a member of any group.
“But his antigovernment, violence-laden, racist, conspiratorial, Waco-obsessed ideas mirrored those of the most committed militia member,” Stern writes.
Based on what is known about him and his views, McVeigh could be considered part of the patriot movement, which includes militia members as well as tax protesters.
Observers say the bombing caused a shakeout in the movement, driving away the less-committed or those who primarily cared about a mainstream issue, such as gun control or abortion.
What’s left is hard core, says Ken Toole, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, a liberal group that was among the first to report on the militia phenomenon as it spread in early 1994.
After the bombing, “the media began to do stories about who these people are and what they really believe, and they began to lose their ability to recruit in the mainstream,” says Toole. “Their ability to reach the plumber, the hardware dealer, people they had been getting to before, really got cut off.
“So after Oklahoma City and the media exposure, we believe that those who did come to the militia movement tend to be individuals who were more animated, more disenfranchised, more isolated.
“What we face now is a movement that is greatly hardened over what it used to be,” says Toole. “Now, we think that if someone stands up and says ‘I’m a militia member,’ they generally have a pretty thorough understanding of what that means and have an understanding at least of the violence that has been associated with the movement and are willing to sublimate it and pay no attention to it or embrace it.”
Law enforcement appears to share the view that the movement continues to bear watching.
Three members of the Militia-at-Large for the Republic of Georgia were convicted on bomb-making charges last year. Twelve members of an Arizona group called the Viper Team were arrested on conspiracy, weapons and explosives charges, and 10 pleaded guilty in December.
Some militia members have dropped or downplayed their militia affiliation and moved to single-issue groups such as Brass Roots, an anti-gun-control lobby. Also drawing followers are common-law courts, citizens’ groups that consider established courts illegitimate and issue writs and arrest warrants against elected officials.
Historians say the militia movement is today’s version of an enduring theme in U.S. politics, dubbed by historians “the fear of conspiracy” or “the paranoid style.” Such politics - characterized by a belief that the government is controlled by a conspiracy - has been around since the 19th Century, when it was manifest as anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements.