American Enterprise, July/August 1995
Have millions of Americans gone nuts? A person who gets most of his news from recent television and newspaper reporting might be inclined to answer "Yes." The large numbers of Americans who belong to militias, "patriot" groups, and the like have been portrayed in many outlets as dangerous, anti-social, terroristic kooks. But before Americans accept the prevalent notion that such individuals and groups need to be crushed by federal law enforcement officials as soon as possible, they might want to acquire a more complex and accurate understanding of who is involved, and for what reasons.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that equating all militias with white supremacists is nonsense. Some militias may have members, or even officers, who are racist, but that doesn't mean all the organizations, or the majority of their members are racists. In contrast to the motley pack of losers that dominate groups such as Aryan Nation, most militias are composed of people with jobs and families; people who are seeking to protect what they have, not to inflict revenge on others for their own failings.
Second, despite the impression created in the broadcast media, militia members, "patriots," and others are not motivated solely by the two cause célbre cases of Randy Weaver and Waco.
The Weaver and Waco cases were horrible abuses of government power. (See details on pages 72 and 73.) In the Weaver case, a young boy was shot in the back by a U.S. Marshal, and a mother cradling an infant was killed by an FBI sniper. A secret but partially leaked Justice Department report concludes that governmental actions in the Weaver case violated both statutory law and the United States Constitution. Yet the man in charge of the Weaver case, Larry Potts, has been promoted to the number two slot at the FBI.
In Waco, an arrest warrant for one man who lived in a building with 126 other people was served by a machine gun, grenade, and helicopter assault. Later, a chemical warfare agent that is banned in international battle was used against men, women, and children at the Mount Carmel Center, despite Army field manuals that state that the gas should not be used indoors or against the young.
Horrendous as they were, however, these two incidents would not have become a rallying cry if they did not resonate with the personal experiences of so many people. The increasing militarization of American law enforcement is a justifiable concern of many Americans. Federal agencies ranging from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Marshals Service increasingly employ swat teams, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and other combat gear against civilians. Even more worrisome, the National Guard and other branches of the military are increasingly being used for domestic law enforcement purposes, tasks which they are not intended, or at all well- trained and -equipped, to handle.
Low-flying, unmarked helicopters have become so pervasive in rural America that right-wing "Patriot" groups have developed feverish worries that the helicopters are an advance guard of some United Nations "peacekeeping" force. Actually, the helicopters (which appear black but are really a very dark green) are usually National Guard helicopters looking for marijuana, flying low over farms and houses over which there is not a shred of criminal suspicion.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, notoriously implicated in the Waco case and many others, has been building a reputation for roguish behavior for two decades. A 1982 Senate investigation of the agency unanimously concluded that it habitually engaged in "conduct which borders on the criminal....approximately 75 percent of BATF gun prosecutions were aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations." Although the bureau toned down its activities during the Reagan administration, it is now as bad as ever, much to the dismay of the many decent and high-quality BATF employees.
BATF staffing has been increased 50 percent since 1985, and its theater of operations has been expanded. Robert E. Sanders, former head of the BATF's criminal division, observes that the bureau has recently "shifted from the criminal to the gun," and is now waging "an all-out war against firearms." Sanders notes that "instead of focusing on selected criminals, there is an indiscriminate focus on anyone who owns guns. They are in total consonance with the Clinton administration's anti-gun position and with the gun-control groups."
If you interview licensed firearms dealers who have been "inspected" by the BATF, you will often hear stories of bullying and intimidation. In recent years, other federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Drug Enforcement Administration, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and various branches of the Justice Department have likewise developed reputations for abuse of their police powers over citizens.
To respond intelligently to the militia and patriot movements, we must acknowledge that while they are permeated with implausible conspiracy theories, the movements are largely a reaction to the increased militarization, lawlessness, and violence of federal law enforcement. This is a genuine problem that should concern all Americans.
We must remember that it is lawful in the United States to exercise broad freedom of speech and association, and to bear arms privately. Spending one's weekends in the woods practicing with firearms and listening to gung-ho political speeches is not my idea of a good time. But there is not, and should not be, anything illegal about it.
Tying all militia members or patriots to the Oklahoma City bombing is hate-mongering. Law-abiding militia members are no more responsible for Oklahoma City than law-abiding Arab-Americans are responsible for the deeds of the Libyan secret service.
If we want to shrink the militia movement, the surest way is to reduce abusive behavior by the federal government. If law-abiding Americans are not trusted by their federal government, why should they trust it? If we want to reduce paranoid behavior we must stop giving citizens reason for trepidation and concern. A necessary first step will be to require thorough, open investigation of troubling recent events like those at Waco and Ruby Ridge. If, as the evidence strongly suggests, federal agents broke the law in these places, they should be prosecuted.
Unfortunately, the response of President Clinton is just the opposite. He proposes broad new "anti-terrorism" legislation (H.R. 896) that would produce massive increases in wiretapping (in some cases without court order), punish Americans who support the lawful activities of foreign groups if those groups also engage in unlawful activities, and federalize almost all of criminal law by allowing all property crime and any violent crime at or above the level of serious assault to be defined as "terrorism." For "terrorist" offenses, bail is outlawed, and prison sentences are mandatory, and all previous restrictions against use of the military in domestic law enforcement are abolished. Also abolished are all jurisdictional restraints on federal agencies; the IRS would no longer be limited to tax cases, nor the BATF to alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, nor DEA limited to drugs. Senator Dole's alternative anti-terrorism bill (S. 735) contains most of the same flaws as the Clinton bill, but is slightly more restrained on some issues.
Increased federal repression is a sure-fire formula for abuse of constitutional rights. Far from being secretive, militias and patriot groups hold public meetings that they advertise in local newspapers. Many of them organize through quite mainstream channels, and their votes are significant in some congressional districts. If dissident groups are outlawed and driven underground, then some of their members may become convinced that working within the system is impossible.
America's great strength has always been its tolerance, its freedom, and its determination to make the government abide by the law. If we sacrifice these strengths in order to symbolically demonstrate our opposition to terrorism, we will have let the terrorists win.