Milita activity on rise

Militia groups see a revival

Seattle Times/October 16, 2001
By Craig Welch

One has a warehouse stuffed with tourniquets, military-surplus tents, medical supplies to fight radiation poisoning and gallon cans of lentils packed in nitrogen to make them last longer - just in case.

Another loads chemical suits in his pickup and reads refreshers on how to survive by eating marine life that washes ashore.

And then there are the defense classes that include small-arms training to combat disaster-exploiting looters.

Not since Y2K came and went with little more than costly computer overhauls have militia groups, everyday survivalists and conspiracy-minded "patriot" organizations - the loose collection of groups ranging from those who decry the New World Order to those who want a return to common-law courts - been more at the ready.

And never in recent memory have those who prepare for the apocalypse felt more justified in their resolve.

"Militias have been trying for years to get everybody prepared," said Butch Razey of the Yakima County Militia. "Now it's not just us weird old militia people saying it. It's the Red Cross."

At a time when human-rights groups and even the most hyperbole-prone zealots confess interest in survivalism had plummeted, Razey and others believe the Sept. 11 attacks are renewing interest among their mainstream neighbors.

Suddenly, the concerns of fringe groups - the battle between security and individual liberty - resemble those of middle America.

Some human-rights groups fear the country's newfound vulnerability will draw it toward a movement that, on the outer edges, grows quite unsavory.

"We saw this around the time of Oklahoma City and WTO (World Trade Organization) and again coming up on the new millennium in 2000," said Eric Ward, with the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity. "Now you take an incident like this, and I don't know how to magnify it in comparison. Is it 200 times more significant?"

Home Defense

Razey's group of about 16 members still meets regularly, but does little more radical than volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, protest the WTO or donate to food banks. One member once called the group "sort of a Kiwanis club with guns." Still, until the past month, Razey was sometimes given a wide berth.

Now, he said, he's being stopped on the street by people wanting to know what emergency food to buy. A neighbor who usually ignores him recently knocked on his door and asked to buy a gas mask. Shortly after the attacks, their regular meeting was standing room only.

"We were just those radical old nuts until this happened," he said.

Last week, Mary Ann Lockhart, a member of Razey's Yakima militia, sat at a booth at a Central Washington fair seeking participants for "family-defense" classes on surviving terrorism. The classes are sponsored by the state's Constitution Party, which, among other things, seeks a return to a U.S. dollar backed by gold or silver.

The proposed classes touch on everything from medicinal powers of cayenne pepper to finding a safe zone in a nuclear blast or terrorist attack. So far, 40 people have signed up.

"We see this as a new type of war - a direct attack on the American people," said party leader Sandra Swanson. "If you're in Washington, and you're the president or the Cabinet, you have a safe place to go. The average American does not. We're teaching simple preparedness."

Many of those techniques are also sold by the Militia of Montana, known for its preparedness catalogue. Founder John Trochmann, a godfather of the modern militia movement, said he has fielded calls from New York to California from people seeking biological-warfare suits and vials of a potassium substance believed to protect against radiation poisoning.

"We normally sell 500 bottles a year, but we've sold that in a month," Trochmann said. "We're having stockbrokers, lawyers, even doctors calling us from New York City asking if we have any gas masks."

One Renton survivalist, ex-Marine Marshall Sanders, who has owned gas masks and chemical suits for at least five years, is being stopped by colleagues begging to know what type of firearm to buy.

"People are starting to listen to me instead of referring to me as a paranoid kook," Sanders said.

And switchboards are lighting up anew in the hills above Kamiah in central Idaho's Clearwater River Valley, where families have built bomb-proof bunkers backed by underground battery-powered generators in "covenant communities." Founded by patriot leader Jack McLamb and retired special-forces Col. James "Bo" Gritz, a one-time populist candidate for president who has said he was the model for the movie "Rambo," these mountain retreats had attracted 300-plus families in the mid-1990s. The Los Angeles Times once dubbed McLamb and Gritz "the dynamic duo of survivalism."

Now, "We're getting lots of calls again from people who want to know if we're still building communities," said McLamb.

Mainstream preparedness businesses, including one that typically sells emergency provisions to families whose religious beliefs encourage them to stock food supplies for emergencies, have also seen sales skyrocket.

"We've seen a 500 to 600 percent increase in sales," said Dave Sheets, owner of Emergency Essentials in Orem, Utah. "I don't see a general panic or anything. But this is reality. People are concerned."

Groups in Decline

The Sept. 11 attacks came a time when the militia movement was at its lowest point since its two seminal events: the 1992 siege by the FBI and U.S. Marshals at white separatist Randy Weaver's North Idaho cabin, and the deadly 1993 raid by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In both cases, civilian deaths led some to conclude the federal government was wildly out of control at best, or, at worst, trying to stamp out dissidents.

This year saw an end to the "preparedness expo" - the ultimate traveling market of military surplus clothing, camping material and survivalist accessories that grew popular in the wake of the Ruby Ridge case. The expo essentially fall apart when the Y2K bug failed to spark Armageddon.

"People just didn't seem interested anymore," said the Militia of Montana's Trochmann, a guru of the patriot movement. "They thought Y2K was a big hoax and we were a bunch of kooks. Well, I think we slid right next to a huge catastrophe worldwide, and got lucky."

But Trochmann also suggested Osama bin Laden was only involved in the Sept. 11 bombings as a CIA operative and calls him a "designated villain." The real culprit: the U.S. government. Trochmann dates his anti-government views to 1961 when, he insists, he saw firsthand evidence that the Russians never took back their bombs during the Cuban missile crisis.

Even Razey doesn't dispute that the number of folks who regularly communicate with folks such as Trochmann remains small - smaller, even, than just a few years ago.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group that monitors the links between the patriot and white-power movements, reported that the number of active groups dropped from a high of nearly 858 in 1996 to fewer than 200 last year. Even the most ardent, such as the Northern Michigan Regional Militia, whose group was said to have attended meetings with Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols in 1994, disbanded this spring. And in Kamiah, Idaho, where the first covenant community "Almost Heaven" was quickly filled with patriots who promised to protect one another at all costs, residents quieted down so much in recent years that their opponents all but disbanded.

"I had a feeling, once nothing bad happened with Y2K, that it got kind of boring for people out here in the boonies," said Larry Nims, a Kamiah businessman who helped found a human-rights group in the '90s to battle a handful of newcomers who bordered on being racist.

The controversies of the mid-1990s dropped off so much in recent years, "We don't even have meetings anymore," Nims confessed.

Human-rights Groups Uneasy

Americans' continuing nervousness in the aftermath of Sept. 11 makes leaders of human-rights groups uneasy.

At root, the more conspiracy-minded theories are deeply anti-Semitic, and some leaders have flirted with white nationalism. Trochmann, for example, once attended a gathering of the Aryan Nations - the white-supremacist group that has pushed for two decades to create a white homeland in the Northwest - but has since repeatedly denied any racist leanings. In 1997, three self-proclaimed white-separatist members of a North Idaho militia were convicted in Spokane of bombing a newspaper and a Planned Parenthood office as diversions while they robbed two banks. Ward, of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, and other organizations that monitor the more radical fringe, said racist groups "already are trying to figure out what this means for them as far as organizing. We're seeing a lot of dialogue (on the Internet) that we haven't seen since a few months after Oklahoma City."

But even Ward recognizes the danger of painting with too broad a brush. He points to Razey's group, as an example.

"The Yakima militia has staying power, and most people would look at it and say, 'Pretty harmless, pretty community-friendly' - and that's true," said Ward. "But they're part of a larger social movement that's not always so harmless."

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