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Sizing Up Militias

THE American militia movement that spawned a Timothy McVeigh does represent an important and sadly ignored undercurrent of hatred and anger. Moreover, those negative passions may grow -- particularly if Americans do not take an interest in the profound sense of human alienation that partly explains why they are happening.

But a little bit of reflection indicates one thing Americans do not need to do: overreact. The militias are an excellent media story, clearly. Like the characters in some fantastic David Lynch film, the militias strip off the exterior view of a merely satisfied consumer society to show trouble beneath.

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Yet media fascination usually results in the story being hyped past its true meaning. One can scarcely watch 20 minutes of TV without seeing the familiar scraggly lines of middle-aged men in camouflage listening to a ''commander'' rant about a one-world army led by the UN. As the shock of Oklahoma City diminishes, Americans should take a sober look at the actual strength of these groups. In a country of 250 million, this isn't yet significant. Moreover, the groups should not be overrated. At a recent militia rally in Cornish, N.H., a friend found more reporters than militia members on the scene. (The media witnessed dangerously clever warnings from militia leaders, like a comment about how to spot government sympathizers -- they use zip codes.)

The Michigan militia, oft-quoted, numbers 12,000. The so-called ''Unorganized Militia of the United States,'' founded last year, claims 3 million. But we are dubious of these figures. A number of observers wryly agree -- they are unorganized.

There is an enormous distance between even the person who signs up to receive militia publications -- and the person able and willing to take up arms and march down a path to violence. True, there will always be a hard-core element who need a scapegoat to substitute for their own unwillingness to face the real world and work at living in a truly civil society.

Anger and hate are toxic elements. But lawmakers should recognize that militias are not the cause; they are a symptom. There is still enough reason and intelligence in America to find a cure -- without going overboard.

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