Militia Movement Ideas Seep Into the Mainstream
As millennium approaches, militias are adopting extremist measures and society is giving more visibility to conspiracy thinking
Bombings. Bank robberies. Plots to destroy government property. Illegal weapons stashed away. In recent months a series of criminal activities has been connected to armed militias around the country.
* In Pennsylvania last week, five white supremacists, members of the self-styled "Aryan Republican Army," were indicted for robbing seven banks in the Midwest.
* Three northern Idaho men with white-supremacist ties go on trial in Spokane, Wash., next week for robbing banks and bombing an abortion clinic and newspaper office there. They are also being investigated in connection with the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta last summer.
* While the recent bombings at a courthouse and bank in Vallejo, Calif., are now thought to have been part of a drug case, officials believe other recent bombings in California may have antigovernment militia ties.
But behind the events themselves are trends more important than the sum of the activities.
"If you only see the individual events and don't see the pattern, then you're missing the story," says Chip Berlet, a specialist in right-wing extremist groups with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.
Militia-type thinking is working its way into general thought and culture, says Mr. Berlet, particularly as we approach the millennium.
Standard fare on TV
Conspiracy thinking, antigovernment beliefs, and "millennialist expectations" - foundations of militia philosophy - are now being raised and discussed everywhere from Pat Robertson's 700 Club television program to lawsuits pushing "county supremacy" in the rural West to such popular TV shows as "Millennium," "Dark Skies," and "The X-Files."
The 700 Club, for example, has discussed how the redesigned US currency might be a secret way of having the "mark of the beast" displayed. Conspiracies about shadowy federal government organizations are standard fare for the "The X-Files" and similar programs.
"The militia movement is mainstreaming itself," warns Berlet. "It's moving into a serious long-term presence."
A guide to right-wing extremism published by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) last November notes "an intensified suspicion and hostility toward government among the general population ... a troubling aspect of [which] is the rhetorical support that extremists have received from the mainstream."
While hard to gauge, the number of Americans who count themselves militia members (as many as 60,000) or are at least politically disgruntled and have militia leanings (some 5 million) appears to have remained stable since the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City two years ago.
But the ADL notes a solidification in militia membership, due in part to the decline of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan.
"In little more than two years, militias have come to outnumber the membership of the KKK, the neo-Nazis, the racist skinheads, and other hate groups combined," warns the ADL.
"The growth of the militia movement, however, does not mean that these traditional hate groups are no longer active," adds the ADL. "Rather it signifies the reconfiguration of traditional hate group activities or passions in response to trends within the broader culture."
One of those trends was seen at the Spokane Convention Center last weekend, where the Self-Sufficiency and Preparedness Expo drew hundreds of true-believers and the curious. Anti-government seminars were featured, and there were booths sponsored by militia groups and purveyors of survivalist gear. It was one of several similar events held around the country recently, mainly in the West.
Thwarting illegal activities
While these events may concern some observers, others note that law-enforcement efforts have, on several recent occasions, thwarted the illegal activities of antigovernment extremists.
Armed militia members conspiring to engage in domestic terrorism have been stopped before they could carry out their plans in Arizona and Georgia. The FBI successfully waited out the "freemen" holed up in Montana last summer.
"If I had to characterize it right now, I'd say we're in the 'Empire Strikes Back' phase," says Mark Pitcavage, an expert on the history of militias in America who is based in Columbus, Ohio.
"There have been a number of successful arrests, prosecutions, and people pleading guilty," says Mr. Pitcavage, who recently began working with a Justice Department program training state and local law-enforcement officials about domestic terrorism. "A lot of things are starting to click."
Pitcavage is also dubious about assertions that militia-type thinking is becoming more generally accepted.
"I personally don't see this moving into the mainstream," he says. "On a certain level, all Americans love conspiracies - the Kennedy assassination, UFO coverups. You do not have to be a right-wing extremist to think that [White House aide] Vincent Foster did not commit suicide."
But some experts say the movement as a whole is moving to the right and becoming more dangerous. Recent bombings seem to pattern the fictional account of a fascist takeover of the government and then destruction of Jews and people of color as presented in "The Turner Diaries," by William Pierce.
The novel has become a kind of textbook for some antigovernment radicals, particularly those with racist ideas. Timothy McVeigh, one of the men charged with bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, reportedly urged his Army friends to read "The Turner Diaries."
"That book is really coming true, whether it's being used as a model or whether it was prescient," says Mary Rupert, a conflict-resolution expert whose recent work on fascism soon will be published by George Mason University.
Berlet of Political Research Associates predicts that as the millennium approaches, more conspiracy allegations of the type espoused by the most radical militia members will emerge. In particular, these will accompany warnings about the Biblically-prophesied "end times."
"That's part of what's called 'millennialist expectation' ... concern with a new world order or one-world government or the rise of powerful elites," says Berlet, who adds that the search for scapegoats (typically non-Christians and nonwhites) also fits "the old claims that an anti-christ will arise in the 'end times.'"
Mark Thomas, one of the Pennsylvania men charged in the Midwest bank robberies and a follower of the racist Christian Identity movement, has an Internet site in which he warns: "White man, this is your final call: There is nowhere else to run or hide. Either fight, die, or prepare to turn your daughters over to the mongrelized descendants of dusky two-legged beasts. The choice is yours."