Bombing drives out militia members

St. Petersburg Times/June 10, 2001
By Wes Allison

John Stackpole, fresh from three days of combat training in the rugged mountains outside Knoxville, Tenn., was trying to talk liberty with the guy across the street on Friday when he ran into some familiar resistance. "He knows literally nothing about the Constitution. And when I mentioned the word "militia,' he was like, "Oh, you're one of them,' " said Stackpole, commander of the Militia of East Tennessee. "People have to remember there was a militia before there was a country."

But he and his compatriots appear to have lost that war. Although militia devotees deny it, groups that have tracked the militia movement for years say it is badly flagging, a victim of the carnage of Oklahoma City and the ideals of Timothy McVeigh, who is scheduled for execution on Monday.

An annual report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of militia or patriot-type groups has plummeted from 858 in 1996, the year after the bombing, to 194 last year. The Anti-Defamation League, which operates Militia Watch, reports a similar decline.

Both cite militia Web sites, publications, police and interviews with current and former members for the findings. Although several factors are at play, experts largely blame McVeigh, whose close association with the anti-government ideals and paranoia of citizens' militias turned the public against the movement and increased scrutiny by police. Members fled and recruitment fell.

"A lot of the movement recoiled in horror. It made it real," said Joe Roy, director of the law center's Intelligence Project, which has tracked hate and anti-government groups since 1980.

"It's one thing to strut and talk about bombing the government and bringing it down, but when you start bombing innocent children, that left a bad taste in a lot of these guys' mouths," Roy said.

The militia movement, which had smoldered underground for decades, largely in the South and West, enjoyed a renaissance in the first half of the 1990s as conservatives, survivalists and self-styled patriots reacted to Clinton-era gun laws and America's increased role in world affairs and the United Nations. Essentially, members think the government is becoming increasingly hostile to its citizens and prepare to offer armed resistance if need be.

Membership surged after two favorite examples of what they perceived as government thuggery, the deadly federal raid on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where the 14-year-old son and the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver were killed by federal agents.

Then, as militiamen ranted in cyberspace about the government's "jack-booted thugs" and conducted military exercises in the mountains of Idaho, Montana and North Carolina, McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to avenge the Waco raid on its second anniversary. The truck bomb killed 168 men, women and children.

A couple of months earlier, the Anti-Defamation League's first report on the burgeoning militia movement, a 12-page booklet entitled Armed and Dangerous, had been virtually ignored. "There weren't a lot of people who saw that report, and it didn't ring as significant to an awful lot of people," recalled Art Teitelbaum, the Miami-based Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League. "When the Murrah building went up, we couldn't print the report fast enough."

McVeigh had attended some militia meetings, but never joined. Suddenly, however, in the minds of many Americans, this loose network of militia groups went from conspiracy-minded guys in camouflage who played war games to a dangerous underground movement. The feds began to notice. Police began to notice. Citizens began to worry. Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, and with what their beliefs had come to signify, fairly or not, members began to leave.

Drew Rayner of Perkinston, Miss., commander of the Mississippi Militia, snorts at the notion of the movement dissipating like so many trout frightened by a shadow. "The real story is they quit getting out front because the media gave us such a beating," he said. "The ones that got scared off needed to be scared off because they couldn't be counted on anyway. We call them sunshine patriots."

In interviews Friday, militia members from Montana to Virginia to Michigan staunchly denied a membership crunch. Although some admitted losing members in the weeks or months after Oklahoma City, they insist the bombing actually provided the opportunity to cleanse their rolls of dangerous extremists and undedicated members alike.

They also claimed membership again is on the rise, although all but one refused to release any numbers. They pointed to the annual conference, held recently in Kentucky near the Tennessee border, of 300 militia leaders from 17 states, the largest gathering yet.

"Don't underestimate the legitimate militia movement in this country," scolded Tom Wayne, executive officer and chief of staff for the Michigan Militia Corps Wolverines, one of the nation's most well-organized militia groups. "It's not smaller. And if you get that false impression, you'll have these fools in government going back to what they were doing before this, back to Boom Boom Reno."

Just as the police and watchdog groups have become more sophisticated at watching them, militias say they've become more adept at staying underground. The Mississippi Militia operates in cells of three to five people, to make it harder to infiltrate, then gather monthly for training. In East Tennessee, "we always act like we have people dropping out and adding people, and dropping out," Stackpole said. "It's very hard to tell how many people we have. That's by design.

"We are anywhere, everywhere and nowhere, and that's the way we like to have it." Last week, the Militia of East Tennessee was out in the woods, deep in the mountains near the North Carolina border practicing survival techniques and long-range sniping. Most militias report monthly field exercises.

"I will tell you before God and Jesus Christ my savior that we have no .50-caliber weapons," said Stackpole. "But we do have people who can shoot the wart off a gnat's butt at 700 yards or better with a Winchester. "My whole goal for them is we keep this the 1,000-yard war, if it ever comes to that. And I pray it never does. A righteous man prays for peace."

Donald Doyle of Roanoke, Va., says comments about the bumper stickers on his truck -- "Our Founding Fathers were Christian militia members," "Fight the New World Order, George Washington Would," and the like -- are more good than bad. "Here in Virginia, we run wide-open," said Doyle, an officer in the Virginia Citizen's Militia, which claims about 1,000 members. "A lot of us are members of the Republican Party; I'm a precinct captain. I've been to dinners with Gov. (Jim) Gilmore.

"I'm not trying to rock the boat. I don't want a revolution. I hope to live to be an old man. But government confiscation of firearms, I am not going to tolerate that at all." Roy, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the Intelligence Project has documented the downfall of militias by combing militia's own Web sites and publications, as well as newspaper accounts and conversations with members.

The group also polls some 50,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. The reasons behind its decline reach beyond McVeigh, Roy said. The economy has been strong, and it's tough to stir up a working and satiated populace. Y2K, the event of the century for the survivalist fringe, was a bust; the canned goods, ammo and fear went for naught.

President Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno, a villain of the far right, have been replaced by Republican President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, a favorite of the far right.

That doesn't mean interest in militias will never rise again. Teitelbaum said extremist activity tends to be cyclical. An economic downtown or major event could reignite it. "The militia movement today is weakened because it is less organized, and some people from anxiety have been driven from the movement, or dropped out," Teitelbaum said.

"But those who remain tend to be the most dedicated to these dangerous ideologies and often are the most involved in guns and paramilitary activities." Since Oklahoma City, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 30 attempted terrorist acts by militia groups that were foiled by police. Militia watchers do not expect McVeigh's death to be a catalyst for the movement: He can't be a martyr because he was never a hero.

Although a militia group from southern Indiana reportedly plans to hold vigil, and some have alluded to revenge, when McVeigh is executed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, most militia members contacted say they want nothing to do with him. Some said they understand his anger at the government, but condemned his tactics.

"It's kind of like stepping on a cow patty: all these people were running around, shaking their leg, trying to get it off of them," Roy said. "A lot of it was like, "I told you so,' but these guys don't want McVeigh too firmly attached to them. It's bad for business."

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