• U.S.

The Threat from the Patriot Movement

17 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Annamarie Miller is a dedicated schoolteacher with an obvious love of history and ideas, who dresses fastidiously in neatly pressed shirts and slacks and is inclined to exclaim “Gosh!” when she gets excited. Though hardly a menacing presence, Miller, 27, is a determined renegade who refuses to take any authority figure’s word at face value. It all began, she says, during her student days at California State University at Chico. “I became disillusioned by the revisionism of history,” she says. “A lot of stuff they were teaching me twisted the truth.” Inspired by campaign literature, she began to question the “truths” of authorities far more powerful than her college professors. The Federal Reserve Board, for instance. Why had it never been audited? Had it perhaps already bankrupted the U.S.? Or the Social Security Administration. Was it going to collapse before Miller was old enough to collect? Through such questions, Miller gradually arrived at a hard “truth” of her own. The constitutional rights of all Americans, she believes, are threatened by an overgrasping, irresponsible government.

She doesn’t keep it to herself. Each Tuesday at 7 p.m., Miller broadcasts that unflinching message via public-access TV to an audience of 50,000 viewers in Northern California. Along with her husband Scott, a retail clerk, and his brother Randall, a chef, she uses their half-hour show, The Informed Citizen, to warn of threats to the American way of life. Among them: a conspiratorial U.S. government that is surrendering its sovereignty to the U.N.; efforts by police and gun-control advocates to disarm citizens; and a tax burden that is robbing Americans of their hard-earned income. Her aim, she insists, is simply to inform and motivate. “A lot of people,” she says, “are willing to give up their rights and freedom out of fear.”

Before the bombing in Oklahoma City, few Americans would have thought that either Miller or her show posed a serious threat to the civic order. Unlike many other American citizens who identify themselves as “patriots” — an amorphous, far-right populist movement of both armed militias and unarmed groups that harbor a deep distrust of government — Miller does not spend her weekends running around in camouflage, shooting at imagined enemies. Nor does she buy into every conspiracy theory that crackles along the patriot grapevine, like last week’s alert that the Oklahoma catastrophe-which “patriots” suspect involved three bombs, not one-was a government plot to enable President Clinton to proclaim martial law and divert attention from forthcoming hearings on the Whitewater financial scandal. Indeed, Miller’s attitude toward the Oklahoma City culprits — “I say hang ’em” — sounded much like the President’s.

But as Americans try to understand the social currents that could wash a homegrown terrorist up to the front doors of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, they are taking a second look at people like Miller. It’s not because Miller shows any signs of violent tendencies herself, but because she is one of the disseminators of a virulent antigovernment philosophy that may have helped plant thoughts of insurrection in someone else’s head. Miller’s own first thought upon hearing of the bombing was, “Oh, my gosh, I hope some idiot calling himself a patriot didn’t do this.” She admits that her own unarmed group, the Sons of Liberty, had attracted a “loose cannon,” a young man who tried to join last summer. “He was saying things like, ‘We ought to blow up the federal building,’ “she recalls. The Sons of Liberty promptly tossed him out.

But what ideas do these fringe characters decamp with? Where do they go? And what, if anything, are they up to now? What is most perplexing is the vague intersection between those so-called patriots who merely spread the word Paul Revere-style, those who are arming themselves in anticipation of a fight to defend their rights, and those who are already taking aim at perceived enemies. In recent months there have been several incidents between armed, angry citizens and government agents that have prompted officials to take these groups more seriously.

Last September, for instance, three men driving a Saturn were stopped in Fowlerville, Michigan, by a police officer after their vehicle crossed the center line. According to the town’s police chief, Gary Krause, an officer found the car packed with weapons, including a .357-cal. revolver, three assault rifles, three 9-mm semiautomatic pistols and 700 rounds of ammunition. The three men identified themselves as bodyguards of Mark Koernke, the self-promoting militia propagandist. “They said they had just completed maneuvers,” Krause recalls. While those three men didn’t show up for their arraignment six days later, dozens of militia members did, turning out in camouflage fatigues and taunting police officers.

How many people have reached that breaking point with their Federal Government-and are they acting alone or together? If you count just the people who are arming themselves against the day when U.N. tanks roll through the heartland to establish the one-world order, estimates range only as high as 100,000. But if you include all the people in as many as 40 states who respond to the patriot rhetoric about a sinister, out-of-control federal bureaucracy — all the ranchers fed up with land- and water-use policies, all the loggers who feel besieged by environmentalists, all the underemployed who blame their plight on NAFTA and GATT — then the count soars upwards of 12 million. “People are drawn in under this soft umbrella of anger at the government and soon taken into the more violent part of the movement if they continue to express interest,” says Mary Ann Mauney of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors hate groups in the U.S.

Unfortunately, newcomers to the movement will find few guideposts that signal, This way the true believers, that way the dangerous zealots. The ranks of the antifederalist insurgency include plenty of the former: tax protesters, home schoolers, Christian fundamentalists and well-versed Constitutionalists. But the groups also contain an insidious sprinkling of the latter, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists. What binds these diverse elements is a fervent paranoia. The most fearful patriots believe that Soviet fighter jets are on standby in Biloxi, Mississippi, that frequent flyovers by “black helicopters” signal an imminent occupation by the armies of a one-world government, and that stickers on some interstate highways are coded to direct the invading armies. They also regard such federal agencies as the fbi, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the shock troops for an all-out war on personal liberties.

While fear is a common denominator, not everyone worries about the same things. Tom Metzger, who founded White Aryan Resistance in 1980 after breaking with the Ku Klux Klan, ridicules talk of a military invasion. “Ninety percent of that stuff is nonsense,” he says. “We’ve got 10 million Mexicans flooding into this country, and the militias are worried about repainted helicopters.” For their part, many militia groups aggressively weed out racists, and a few even have minority members. According to its leader, Fitzhugh MacCrae, New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County Dragoons includes blacks, Latinos and Asians, and favors good works like shoveling snow for the elderly. “I’m pro-choice and I donate money to PBS,” he says. “How subversive is that? But I also support the Second Amendment [guaranteeing the right to bear arms]. It is the only amendment that empowers the rest of them.”

Indeed, the right to bear arms seems to be the one altar where moderate Constitutionalists and armed zealots can worship comfortably side by side. “There’s a real fear that once the Second Amendment is abridged, the First [guaranteeing free speech] will be the next to go,” says Scott Wheeler, a writer for the U.S. Patriot Network. Despite the reverence for guns, however, “the vast majority of people in the militias are not violent or dangerous,” says James Aho, a sociologist at Idaho State University who has interviewed 368 members of the radical right.

They do, however, have an unusually vigorous commitment to self-defense. “Within two years, I expect to see the Constitution suspended. We will be prepared to defend it,” says Norman Olson, an independent Baptist minister who together with real estate salesman Ray Southwell founded the Michigan Militia. Toward that end, Olson has led army-style maneuvers on an 32-hectare tract of scrub pine and meadow dotted with obstacle courses and bunkers. Most of those who come for the training sessions are middle-aged, white, family men who must struggle to support their loved ones and struggle even harder to catch their breath during Olson’s exercises, which require them to traverse rugged terrain shouldering semiautomatic rifles.

Despite the popularity of these exercises, the militia stripped Olson of his command last Friday after he sent inflammatory faxes to the news media blaming the Oklahoma explosion on the Japanese government. When a Time reporter knocked on Olson’s door later that day, Olson appeared in a blue bathrobe. “Why are you bothering me?” he asked. “Can’t you see I’m trying to stop World War III?” The next day, both Olson and Southwell, who had helped prepare the fax, resigned under pressure from the militia.

As befits these go-it-aloners, militia members favor decentralization in their own ranks. The movement has “no national structure, no central command and no central leadership, either recognized from within the movement or without,” says Jonathan Mozzochi, executive director of the Coalition for Human Dignity in Oregon. Partly, he believes, this is because it is a “grass-roots upsurge,” but the lack of clear structure is intentional as well.

In 1987, Robert Miles, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who was convicted in 1971 of burning school buses in Pontiac, Michigan, articulated the idea of “leaderless cells,” an organizational structure of small autonomous groups that effectively thwarts infiltration and defuses culpability. “Miles compared his new concept to a spider web,” says Richard Lobenthal of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. “You can put your hand in it and it gives, and when you remove the hand, it is still there.”

That web is further fortified by the information revolution, which enables people to disseminate their ideas widely, cheaply and often under the safe cloak of anonymity. Bomb recipes have been transmitted across computer bulletin boards. CB and shortwave radios enable militia members not only to communicate between themselves but also to monitor the communications of law-enforcement officials. In the gray split-level house that serves as the nerve center of the Michigan Militia there are 15 phone lines, four computers, multiple fax machines, a professional printing press and a full television-production facility.

Less well-funded patriots mount inexpensive programs on public-access or satellite TV. Or they can make and market their own videotapes-a propaganda tactic that insulates the patriot evangelists from any direct blame for the antigovernment acts they may inspire. The handful of celebrities on the patriot circuit-people like Koernke, attorney Linda Thompson and Militia of Montana founder John Trochmann-all have tapes in circulation that promote their theories about the plot to take over the world. In a two-hour video called America in Peril: A Call to Arms, Koernke, an Ann Arbor janitor who goes by the handle “Mark from Michigan,” ominously reviews the “evidence” of one-world conspiracy. At fema, he asserts, fewer than 64 employees are engaged in disaster work; the other 3,600 are “there to manage the system after they take over.” The incursion is inevitable, he argues, and the only choice is “to lock and load.”

Koernke unequivocally denies any involvement in the Oklahoma blast, but he has capitalized on the atrocity to rally his followers around the idea of government complicity in the explosion. On his shortwave radio broadcast the day of the bombing, he exhorted true believers in Oklahoma to grab their video cameras and shoot footage of the site. “Document what agencies were coming in and out. As a matter of fact, [my wife] Nancy and the kids, watching the initial footage of this, saw what appeared to be United Nations observers’ badges.” The next day, patriot computer bulletin-board systems were rife with messages like this one on the Citizenship BBS in California’s San Fernando Valley: “This was orchestrated by the shadow government (i.e., Trilateralists, atf, fema, etc.) to whip the public into such a frenzy that Americans will BEG to surrender their privacy for some government-provided protection from terrorism.” At week’s end, the shortwave station carrying Koernke’s broadcast dropped his show.

Other patriots are worried that their own agendas will be confused with the as-yet-unexplained agenda of the Oklahoma bomber. “If you get one crazy out there who doesn’t have a brain, then everybody gets lumped in,” complains Dean Compton, 33, who heads an armed militia in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. In dread of just such an event, he announced the formation of a group in March called the National Alliance of Christian Militia. Compton, who claims 85% of the militia movement is Christian, says the new alliance is an attempt to distinguish their efforts from “the hate groups and the Klan.”

Such distinctions, however, are not always apparent. Two days after the bombing, 550 patriot Christians gathered in Branson, Missouri, for the International Coalition of Covenant Congregations Conference. “I mingled with a lot of people there, and there was not a shred of sympathy for what happened in Oklahoma,” an attendee told Time. According to this source, some participants felt the carnage was understandable retaliation for the 1993 deaths of children during the government raid in Waco, Texas.

California’s Compton asserts that “mainstream” militias are working round the clock to assist in the investigation of the bombing. “We want worse than anybody to make sure these guys come to justice.” But, he warns, “if the government gets heavy-handed” in its search, “we’ll have some problems.” Easygoing and articulate, Compton, the father of three, discusses his apocalyptic convictions with patience and occasional humor. Yet he is girding for guerrilla-style warfare against his own government. He’s got a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol strapped to his hip, a wad of emergency cash and enough ammunition to fight a small battle. In the back of his battered Chevy Silverado, he packs a green .223-cal. Sporter assault rifle, a $200 Kevlar helmet, a CB radio, walkie-talkies, camouflage uniforms and 15 days of provisions.

Compton, who quit his job as a real estate agent in the lumber community of Shingletown to run armed-militia training camps, says all these preparations are for the sake of his children. “I decided I’d do everything in my power to make sure that when my son grows up, he’ll have the same freedoms I had,” he explains. His children, who range in age from 3 to 11, are schooled at home by Compton and his wife. Compton fled the San Francisco Bay Area 10 years ago to settle on a 48-hectare mountain ranch, and his rage against the government seems to have grown in this region where more jobs than trees have been felled in recent years. “Three local lumber mills have been closed in the past year because of spotted owls,” he claims. Compton also complains that he can’t dig up the manzanita bushes on his own land because of local ordinances. “But,” he adds cynically, “you sure better pay taxes on it, or they’ll take it all away from you.”

That part of Compton’s rant is familiar territory for those caught up in the modern Sagebrush Rebellion, a land-rights movement that is spreading rapidly in Western states. Over the past few years, offices of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have come under increasing attack by ranchers, farmers and loggers fed up with federal rules about land use, water rights and endangered habitats. In Nevada, where more than 80% of the state is public land, federal employees have been refused service in restaurants, taunted at public gatherings and harassed with vulgar gestures. In March a bomb exploded in the forest rangers’ district headquarters in Carson City, shattering windows and damaging the office of the chief ranger.

Increasingly these local-control activists are finding common cause with the militias. “Both have an antifederal outlook,” says Dan Barry of the Environmental Working Group in Washington. “They run into each other because they have similar priorities.” Indeed, their complaints are often indistinguishable. “We’ve been pushed so far by rules and regulations, the feds are in our pockets so deep, people are outraged,” says Ronny Rardin, a commissioner in New Mexico’s Otero County. The land-reform rebels have also been developing an appetite for militia-style conspiracy theories. “The New World Order will be running our lives through the United Nations!” warns a fund-raising letter for the National Federal Lands Conference, one of the leading groups.

Meanwhile, the conspiracy theories grow wilder by the day. In one, Queen Elizabeth is working through British conglomerates to regain control of the colonies — witness the purchase of Burger King and Holiday Inn by British companies. There is also rumored to be a global conspiracy to implant newborn babies with microchips. Robert Brown, editor and publisher of Soldier of Fortune, a must-read for many gun advocates and survivalists, has tracked some of these wacky conspiracies and discounted them, including one much vaunted black helicopter sighting. But that hasn’t quieted the patriot grapevine. “It’s all bull. But they don’t want reasonable explanations,” he says, “because they don’t fit their preconceived notions.”

The movement’s communications network is often more sophisticated than its judgment, which means that any mysterious incident gets blown into a conspiracy epic. Take, for instance, the “invasion” of Okanogan County in northwest Washington State. It began last September when a local cattle rancher stumbled across a backwoods military camp teeming with men in fatigues. Word quickly spread that the invasion of U.N. troops had finally begun. When concerned citizens showed up at Sheriff Jim Weed’s office, Weed grabbed the telephone and soon learned that the men in cammies were actually border-patrol officials conducting a joint operation with Canadian authorities. By then, though, panic had spread throughout the state, prompting phone calls from state senators and representatives. To this day, there are some patriots who still don’t believe Weed’s explanation. “I was accused by one person of being seen getting off a U.N. helicopter at an airport wearing a blue helmet,” Weed says.

In the wake of Oklahoma City, many U.S. agencies are stepping up their watch of militia activities, but that may only feed the patriots’ paranoia about government. If investigators start knocking on the doors of militia members, warns Ron Cole, who is a lecturer on the patriot circuit, “it could conceivably turn into an armed struggle against the government.”

Chip Berlet, who tracks right-wing populism for Political Research Associates, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not alone in drawing parallels between America’s patriot movement and Germany’s Weimar Republic. “You see the rise of a large group of disaffected middle-class and working-class people with a strong sense of grievance,” he says. “None of the major parties speak for them.” If their grievances aren’t resolved, he warns, they are likely to become more militant. The message from the militias is largely the same: whether it takes a whisper or a shout, we will be heard. –Reported by Sam Allis/Boston, Edward Barnes/Petoskey, Michigan, Patrick Dawson/Billings, David S. Jackson/San Francisco, Scott Norvell/Atlanta and Richard Woodbury/Denver

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