Where have they gone? Are they still around? And, if they are, why does nobody seem to be talking about them any more?
I refer to American militias, the highly decentralized and localized collection of gun rights advocates, with their deeply suspicious, and often conspiratorial, view of the federal government who burst onto the American political landscape during the mid-1990s, and generated a great deal of attention from concerned law enforcement agencies, politicians, pressure groups and the media. They were especially relevant after Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, of course. The most destructive act of terrorism on American soil prior to the 9/11 attacks, the bombing cost 168 people their lives and injured over 500. McVeigh and Nichols may have not actually been members of a militia, but there was little disputing that many of their beliefs and attitudes were similar, and they were certainly part of the broader patriot movement culture of the time.
The first wave of militia activity came to a symbolic close with the execution of McVeigh in 2001, but a second wave took hold in 2009 as a result, in part, of the banking crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2008, not to mention the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. The Department of Homeland Security issued a controversial report in 2009 warning about a possible resurgence of domestic right-wing extremism in response to these developments, but, in general, concern has tended to shift to the dangers of “lone wolf” acts of terrorism and violence such as James von Brunn’s shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in 2009, or Joseph Andrew Stack III’s airborne suicide attack on an office complex that housed a local branch of the IRS in Austin, Texas, in 2010, as well as the increasing militancy of environmental and animal rights groups.
Yet the militias never went away. The most recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 334 active militias in 2011. The figure for 1996, at the very height of the movement, was 441 – a drop certainly, but still a considerable number. There have also been some notable – and occasionally headline-grabbing – examples of the potential for violence that exists within some militia groups. (It is important to recognize that a range of views have always existed within the movement, with some groups being little more than constitutional discussion groups and others no less than fanatically-committed terroristic cells.) Earlier this year, for instance, three members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia were found guilty in an Anchorage courtroom of a range of offences, including firearms violations and conspiracy to kill a judge and other federal officials. And in 2010, there was the much more widely reported case of the Hutaree Militia in Michigan, of which nine members were indicted on charges including seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, for plans they were said to have had to kill a police officer and attack his funeral procession with homemade explosive devices, in the hope of setting off a full-scale war with the U.S. government. The case collapsed in March this year when District Judge Victoria Roberts ruled that most of the evidence against the militia members was “circumstantial”—as the Hutaree Militia leader David Stone told the Detroit Free Press afterwards, it was an outcome almost guaranteed to increase the level of mistrust of the government by militia groups around the country.
Overall, though, the militias can hardly be said to have been the focus of a great deal of media or political attention over the past three or four years. Part of this has a to do with the vagaries—and limited attention span—of the American news cycle, and of the much more pressing concerns of the international terrorist climate of course, but let me also suggest another reason: the Tea Party. It is no coincidence that the “decline” of the militia movement—or at least a decline in interest in the militia movement—has coincided with the rise of the Tea Party as a significant force in American politics. Perhaps the reason the militia movement has been so quiet over the past few years is that so many of its concerns and ideas are being promoted in a much more palatable form by the Tea Party coalition, and this is the best way to think of the Tea Party movement: as a coalition of various grassroots and national organizations, including Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots, together with gun rights groups, Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the Oath Keepers, and disaffected and insurgent members of the Republican Party.
It is particularly striking how much of the historicized politics practised by Tea Party activists echoes that of the militias. There is the same hallowed invocation of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, for example; the same complaints about the nation’s betrayal of its past; the same reliance on the doctrine of original intent as the best means of gaining access to the guiding “truths” believed to be embedded in the nation’s history; the same deep-seated distrust of government; the same emphasis on the right to bear arms; the same assertive literalness; the same combative certainty – in short, the same historical fundamentalism.
Given this, one wonders whether the militias are also just waiting to see how the 2012 presidential election turns out. Should the Tea Party not help usher Mr. Romney into the White House on November 6th, then maybe four more years of the Obama administration will also bring about another resurgence of the militias in the United States.
Darren Mulloy is associate professor of American History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, Terrorism and Political Violence and Patterns of Prejudice. He is currently completing a study of the John Birch Society to be published in 2013 by Vanderbilt University Press.