Five Years After Peak Of Militia Movement, Extremist Groups Fading

Seattle Post - Intelligencer/May 7, 2001

Six years ago, John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana, gave the United States its first close look at a new radical movement under cultivation by heavily armed followers wielding wild conspiracy theories.

The 1995 arrest of self-proclaimed "militia movement" member Timothy McVeigh for killing 168 people by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City had peeled back the camouflage curtain shading the underground anti-government culture seemingly sprouting in every corner of the country.

Unlike most in the movement, Trochmann welcomed media attention, discoursing at length about the dangers of the "New World Order" and convoluted government plots to crush civil liberties. At the time, he claimed thousands of fellow travelers.

Ask Trochmann, 57, today how his group has weathered the ensuing years and he answers simply: "We're still here." Just barely, says the Southern Poverty Law Center, an extremist- group watchdog, which calls Trochmann's outfit now little more than a "mail-order militia" - a handful of folks tending a Web site and disseminating books with "survivalist" and self-defense themes.

Today, the militia movement is a shell of its former fatigue- wearing self, according to experts at the law center and other groups that monitor the radical subculture in all its forms. "The militia movement is in decline and fading," said Mark Potok, spokesman for the law center.

The number of groups has plummeted, the law center's annual surveys show. In 1995, about 224 militia or so-called "patriot" groups were identified across the country. The post-Oklahoma City focus helped boost the 1996 number to its all-time high of 858. Since then, the drop-off has been steep, with just 194 in existence last year. And those that remain, Potok noted, are "smaller, weaker groups."

Equally telling, the number of militia-related Internet sites also has plummeted. Last year there were 263; this year just 155, the center found. That doesn't mean that extremism as a whole is on the wane in America, Potok and others caution. In fact, there has been a decided uptick in right-wing hate groups in recent years as well as a sharpening of their racist and anti-Semitic edges. Some of the more militant militia members have moved on to join those groups, with the Christian Identity movement claiming a sizable share.

And though the decline is welcome, Mark Pitcavage of the Anti- Defamation League says it's far too soon to declare the militia phenomenon dead. Indeed, in some states - California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas - they still are relatively plentiful.

"Check again in three years. The potential (for resurgence) is there," said Pitcavage, national fact-finding director of the longtime hate-group-watching organization. Many of the factors that spawned the movement remain. Though some militias had a white-supremacist undercurrent, the groups generally coalesced around a deeply shared antipathy to gun control, government intrusion on individual property and other rights, world trade, and the 1993 FBI siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Texas.

Adherents believed it was only a matter of time before "jackbooted government thugs" in black helicopters would launch a similar assault on militia members and gun owners everywhere.

No one factor can be identified as the reason the militia movement has sputtered, observers say. Some members were scared away by media and police scrutiny in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing. Groups splintered and died because of internal power conflicts and other struggles. The successful prosecution of hundreds of militia members across the country also did much to emasculate the movement, Pitcavage said.

For instance, Ray Looker, leader of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, pleaded guilty in 1997 to trying to sell blueprints of an FBI fingerprint facility to an undercover agent posing as a Mideast terrorist. In 1999, Donald Beauregard, leader of the Southeastern States Alliance - a coalition of Southern militia groups - was arrested on charges of plotting to attack utilities in Florida.

The last straw for others was the peaceful dawning of 2000. Militia members were in the vanguard of those predicting - and preparing for - mass government raids and general societal disaster as the new age opened. The uneventful turning of the calendar left many followers feeling duped by the Y2K hype and disillusioned with the movement.

As the May 16 execution of McVeigh nears, the militia community is largely silent. Because he never formally joined a militia, even though he shared their beliefs, McVeigh never drew much support from that quarter. "Sympathy for him is almost non-existent today," Potok said.

Over the years, McVeigh has become woven into the conspiracy plots nurtured by militias and other extremists. One popular thread brands him a government stooge, someone the Feds used to take the fall for the bombing, which actually was done as a pretext for rounding up U.S. gun owners.

"Everyone knows McVeigh's not the true one behind it," Trochmann said. "When they kill him, they'll just be destroying more evidence."

Rise and Fall

1995: About 224 militia or so-called "patriot" groups were identified across the United States.

1996: The attention on such groups after following the Oklahoma City bombing helped boost the number to an all-time high of 858.

2000: The drop-off has been considerable, with just 194 in existence, and those are considered "smaller, weaker groups."

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