In its recent report "Rage on the Right," the Southern Poverty Law Center documented an alarming increase in the number of rightwing paramilitary groups - calling themselves "militias" - many of them engaged in active military training with high-firepower weaponry. According to the SPLC, in 2009 the number of militia groups almost tripled. The FBI recently arrested nine members of the Michigan-based Hutaree militia, who allegedly were plotting violent attacks on police officers.
These developments, set against a rise in acts of politically motivated violence, threats of violence and other inflammatory rhetoric directed against the Obama Administration and the government in general, are sobering reminders of a similar incendiary environment prior to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The early 1990s saw the emergence of a similar militia movement, with a virulently anti-government ideology.
Recently National Public Radio ran a story, called "America's New Kinder, Gentler Militia," revealing the determined efforts by some current militia groups to distance themselves from the violent image of the militia groups of the 1990s, as well as newly-emergent groups like the Hutarees. The story was about the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia and an NPR reporter, Dina Temple Raston, accompanied the militiamen on one of their training exercises. If you believe the militia spin, they are the adult version of the Boy Scouts, learning how to start a fire without matches (they actually showed Ms. Raston how it is done), helping the local sheriff find missing people, collecting coats for needy kids, and adopting a local highway. They denied they were motivated by racism and paranoia. They contrasted themselves with the Hutaree militia, saying "they were the old-style militia, bent on violence," whereas "the new helpful militia" is one that "no one needs to be scared of."
The Michigan militiamen must have regarded the NPR story as a spectacular success. According to NPR's introduction to the story, the militia movement has "grown less violent in recent years." Ms. Raston described the Southeast Michigan militia as "benign."
This judgment seems to have lost the forest for the trees. To point out the obvious, it is possible to help the local sheriff find missing people, collect coats for needy kids, and adopt a local highway, without engaging in military training in the woods with assault weapons. One of the militiamen described his "battle gear" to Ms. Raston as including a rifle with four 30-round magazines, as well as a 9mm sidearm. These people may or may not be racist or paranoid as individuals, but what brings them together is an ideology that should be very troubling to most Americans. The militiamen believe that it is entirely legitimate to form a private army to prepare for armed conflict with our government.
Even a short visit to the website of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia reveals how difficult it is for groups like this to disguise themselves as purely service organizations. The anti-government rhetoric appears in abundance. In a document entitled "In Defense of Liberty II," (presented in FAQ form), after proclaiming that "the militia is not anti-government," the militiamen say they "fully support the restoration of the constitutionally limited government that was intended for this nation." Thus, the government they support is not the government we have: "Where we do have problems, is with the on-going violations of our inalienable rights, as should you." They warn that "your duly elected local, state and federal representatives will day after day, year after year, continue to pass unconstitutional laws, raise your taxes, beyond the point of serfdom, claim authority over your children, take your property, jail you for pretended offenses, send our military to fight foreign wars, protect you from yourself, etc. unless you get involved."
NPR was impressed that, after inveighing against the people's "loss of their liberties," one militiaman said they want people to "get out to the ballot box" and vote for those who would restore their liberties. For the militia, he emphasized, "violence is a very last resort." And therein lies the problem. The militias are engaged in military training in case their resort to the ballot box fails to produce the government they want and violence becomes necessary. And who decides when the time for violence has come? According to the Michigan Militia website, the command structure of the militia does not have the authority to order any member to "shoot at someone." "That decision is left solely to the individual citizen."
What seems to distinguish the various militias may simply be a matter of timing. Some, like the Hutarees, believe that the government has already become so tyrannical that violence is justified. Others don't think it's quite bad enough, at least right now. But all are united behind the pernicious idea that violence against our government is a legitimate "last resort."
If militiamen want simply to serve their communities, I suggest joining the Kiwanis Club. No amount of "community service" spin can hide their mission to ready themselves for acts of violence against government officials. In a democratic society governed by the rule of law, that is not a "kinder, gentler" idea.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.