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Militia Forum Draws Army of Curious

Gathering sparks debate, debunks myths, and becomes arena for conspiracy theories

THEY have become sort of a sociological exhibit in a zoo -- America's citizen militias, these men and women who run around in fatigues, brandish menacing weapons, and chant scary slogans about government.

Yet a growing number people want to dip beneath the stereotypes and caricatures to find out who these people are, what they believe, and, most importantly, whether they're dangerous.

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It is that curiousity that recently drew hundreds of citizens from the ranches that dot this windswept desert area, as well as cities as far away as Seattle and Phoenix, to hear about the now-infamous militias.

The headliner was Mark Koernke, the Michigan militia leader who has moved into the national spotlight as an extoller of underground militias as a way to defend ''yourself, your home, your community, and your nation when the time comes.''

The ''Taking Our Country Back'' conference was a five-hour affair, scheduled three months ago to educate the general public on the militia movement by a Del Mar, Calif.-based advocacy group called Citizens Against Legal Loopholes.

An overflow crowd of 500 partook of the day -- not counting the protesters, who made sure that the sleepy, sunny afternoon was anything but sleepy. Well before the appearance of Mr. Koernke, the crowded Hilton Hotel courtyard was asplash with patriotic debate.

''I love my country and I don't want to be destroyed by the Clinton bunch,'' said a man wearing a ''What Part of Infringed Don't You Understand?'' T-shirt. ''They're taking our freedom of speech, our right to bear arms, overtaxation, everything ... you name it,'' he said.

''You people are a bunch of nuts,'' an attendee with an opposing viewpoint countered. ''You really think the federal government is out to get you? They can't even get their act together to get rid of illegal [immigrants].''

Inside and upstairs, beneath American flags duct-taped to the walls, tables of books were being sold with titles such as: ''America Betrayed,'' ''The Rewriting of America's History,'' ''Constitution: Fact or Fiction.'' There were also videotapes: ''Ruby Creek Massacre,'' ''Invasion and Betrayal/Militia of Montana.'' And ''Don't Tread on Me'' T-shirts.

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As many as 100,000 Americans are members of so-called patriot militias in at least 27 states, and 12 million more may sympathize with at least some of their concerns, says the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based organization that monitors hate groups.

Because they espouse such a broad array of doomsday concerns from an invasion by the United Nations of the US to terrorism foreign and domestic, members are looked at with more-than-usual wariness by the American public.

A Newsweek poll this week found 80 percent of respondents think members of militia groups are dangerous, 63 percent say they are a threat to our way of life, and 55 percent think they are crazy. Several such critics planted themselves in front of the hotel with placards and signs.

''I don't actually agree with all the government is doing,'' said Christopher Geary, a Los Angeles man holding a sign saying, ''Hate is Not an American Value.'' ''But spreading rhetoric of fear that your government is out to get you is not the way to [criticize] it.''

A major concern was the broad brushstrokes given the ''patriot'' movement by the media. ''The press seems to be lumping every kind of gun owner, hunter, tax protester, and constitutionalist under one umbrella,'' said Peter Cisneros, a businessman from Pomona, Calif. ''I'm not a weekend militia type, but whenever anyone starts demonizing groups, people, or ideas, I'm very concerned.''

Eventually, Koernke appeared and spoke for 90 minutes. ''You better be armed,'' he said. ''The juggernaut we face is the New World Order.'' He defined that vaguely as ''internationalists'' and ''globalists.'' He called on the audience to ''become militiamen now, because you have no more time. The Constitution is our property, not the government's.''

He blamed the federal government for causing the Oklahoma bombing, either by actually carrying out the attack or creating the atmosphere of discontent that led to it. ''The big question is: Who profits from this action?'' he asked. ''Bill Clinton did. Legislation was waiting in the wings.''

Another speaker, Suzanne Harris, founder of the Law Loft, a think tank in Los Angeles, encouraged participants to write Congress to defeat antiterrorism laws that would unconstitutionally limit Americans' civil liberties.

''Don't think you can create a terrorist episode and destroy our Constitution with it,'' she warned.

A third speaker, former Los Angeles Federal Bureau of Investigation Chief Ted Gunderson, said the Oklahoma City attack was caused by two blasts from a sophisticated bomb.

''There is an element within the government -- a demonic element -- that is behind this,'' he said.

Contrary to some reports, Koernke did not espouse hate toward any group or call for the violent overthrow of the government. ''He's not nearly as extreme as he has been made out to be,'' said Steve King of Los Angeles. ''I had read that he was a white supremacist and wanted to bomb federal buildings. That just isn't so.''

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