citizens militias
citizens militias

Although being armed in the United States is by no means a novelty, during the early 1990s the collection of marginalized groups that comprised the right-wing “Patriot” community found their ranks swelling as significant numbers of newly disaffected Americans joined “citizens militias” across the United States.

Strongest in the rural heartland of the West, Midwest, and South, at its zenith in 1996 the movement had militias active in all fifty states and numbered perhaps as many as 50,000 members, with several millions of supporters and sympathizers.

Some militia leaders have claimed total membership figures as high as 10 million, which is frankly far fetched; federal agents have suggested that supporters could number in the millions. Perhaps more realistically, others suggest a total militia membership of between 20,000 and 60,000.

Ostensibly defensive in posture, mobilizing in particular against gun laws and as a defiant response to the federal outrages at Ruby Ridge (1992) and at Waco (1993), the militia movement was remarkable and unusual not only for claiming to be socially inclusive, apparently able to recruit African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and middle-class professionals, but also for utilizing what some have termed “fusion paranoia”—that is, conspiracy theories not just to the right of the political spectrum, but also those incorporating the arguments to the left (Kelly). However, the view that the militia movement was progressive was sharply contradicted by many analysts.

One commentator saw the militias as acting as “recruiting pools” for the racist underground, pointing out that the same underground spawned Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. And as early as 1994, the various “watchdog” organizations that monitor the activities of the far right were raising the alarm that racists and antisemites were lurking in the background, disguising their true ideology behind constitutionalist arguments.

The “constitutionalist militias” that have since become a permanent feature of the antigovernment movement are united only in terms of their opposition to the “New World Order”—an elitist conspiracy to create a global socialist tyranny. The degree to which racism and antisemitism dominate this coalition is highly questionable, and it is the nature of conspiracy theories that holds the key to understanding the role and significance of the militias.

What the Militias Believe

Can we really describe the militias as a movement? Arguably, the exercising of gun rights represents only a common strategy among diverse groups (such as survivalists; the advocates of common law who declare themselves “sovereign citizens”; militant antiabortionists; and pro-gun activists), but this does not necessarily represent a common ideology or set of principles.

Nonetheless, the term “militia movement” is widely used to refer to those who frame their activity in terms of defending the U.S. Constitution, and who argue that the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights (“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) is the one that guarantees all the other constitutional rights.

The only real issue around which the movement coheres is opposition to gun control, which is seen as a precursor to “tyranny”. “The individual right to bear military arms is a fundamental and undergirding principle of our Republic,” argues a prominent pro-militia journalist, and therefore, he concludes, “upon its removal the entire national government would become an illegitimate tyranny”.

The spirit of rebellion against gun laws is summed up in the phrase, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” and it is the symbolic importance of the Second Amendment that guides the militia movement, tied into the ideology of nationalism: “This refusal to submit to tyranny is not simply about firearms. It is about human rights, it is about the rule of law, and it is about the continuance of this great nation”.

How can it be that the militias, who present themselves as “Patriots” in defense of U.S. values, are also “antigovernment”? This can only be answered by understanding the politics of nationalism. The FBI’s special report of 1999, Project Megiddo, which discussed the possibility of civil disorder at the start of the new millennium, listed the following criteria as a guideline for what constitutes a militia: “(1) a domestic organization with two or more members; (2) the organization must possess and use firearms; and (3) the organization must conduct or encourage paramilitary training.”

Jon Roland, of the pro-militia Constitution Society, argues that this definition is not the one implied in the U.S. Constitution, especially the Second Amendment, and that “the word militia means defense service, and is applicable to any one or more persons engaged in the defense of the community.” Roland cites George Mason, who defined the militia as “the whole people, except for a few public officials,” and he describes the FBI’s mentality in dealing with the militias as “essentially fascist” (Roland).

This accusation—that federal employees and “socialist” politicians such as the Clintons are “fascists”—is a very common one in militia propaganda. By leveling this charge at their enemies, militia leaders can claim, sometimes with genuine conviction, to be “antifascist,” thereby effectively preempting those on the left who themselves charge that genuine fascists and antisemites are influential within the militias.

The website, for instance, describes those states with stringent gun laws as “despicable and fascist,” while also stating, “If you are a racist, NAZI, KKK, aryan national, psycho or any other type of genetic freak; we do not want you. We suggest you go see a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.” Nevertheless, despite this disclamation, the site contains a link to the 7th Missouri Militia—the most openly racist militia site, run by Martin Lindstedt.

In a similar vein, a pro-militia group, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, puts forward an argument that gun control has “racist roots” (because blacks in the South have historically been denied the right to gun ownership) and that it is a precursor to “genocide.”

Therefore, by opposing gun laws the militias argue that they are preventing the likelihood of genocide being carried out in the United States against any minority. Within this framework gun owners are depicted as a victimized group denied their civil rights in much the same way as nonwhites historically have been denied theirs ( is one of the most widely linked pro-gun sites from militia sites).

This mirrors the strategy of the Christian Right, who have since the 1980s utilized the language of “civil rights” in defense of Christian values, and have employed conspiracy theories concerning “secular humanism”—portrayed as a rival religion to Christianity.

Apart from “nationalism,” expressed as the desire to “save America,” there is no guiding ideology behind a movement that generally denies being “antigovernment” at all—militias are merely opposed to “unconstitutional” government, their exponents claim. Widespread agreement exists among militia members only that there exists a plan to impose global tyranny, usually referred to as the New World Order. This is specifically a socialist plan for global domination.

Within this plan a central role is played by the United Nations, which, it is claimed, will use foreign troops to disarm the U.S. populace following the enactment of stringent gun-control measures, hence the importance not only of gun ownership, but also of training and drilling in military techniques and marksmanship.

The “precipitating factors” that spurred the movement included the passage of the 1993 Brady Bill, which regulated the sale of handguns and restricted ownership to nonfelons; the outlawing of “assault weapons” as part of the Omnibus Crime Bill (1995), passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing; the passage of international trade agreements such as the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which politicians such as Patrick Buchanan said were causing U.S. jobs to be exported to the Third World; and two events that indicated, from the Christian Patriot perspective, that the federal government had declared war on its people: the botched sieges by federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and then again, more cataclysmically, at Waco, Texas, in 1993.

These events were interpreted as proof that the New World Order was nearing completion. A Texan militia commander said of Waco, “We were sleep-walking through life. It was the massacre that woke us all up. When the history of this age is written, that’ll be the shot that rang out around the world and changed everything”.

Militia activists are widely characterized as sharing a conspiracist outlook. Core beliefs include: that the New World Order will require the use of concentration camps for Christian resisters; that unmarked black helicopters are being used by the military in preparation for their plans; that foreign troops working for the United Nations will be used to disarm civilians and imprison them; that international road signs are used in the United States in order to assist these foreign troops; that urban street gangs (such as the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles) will be used as “shock troops” for the New World Order; and that implanted chips are being used to monitor U.S. citizens (a belief shared by Tim McVeigh).

The following elite groups are identified as the instigators of the conspiracy: the Skull and Bones secret society, based at Yale University (of which the Bush family are said to be members); the Council on Foreign Relations; the Trilateral Commission (comprising economic, political, and media elites from Western Europe, North America, and Japan); the Bilderbergers; the Rockefeller and Rothschild banking families; and the British royal family. Many of these conspiracy theories are the same as those of the John Birch Society, who label these elites “the Insiders.”

Although these elites include Americans, the conspiracy itself is specifically un-American, as pointed out by Bo Gritz, speaking in 1992: “what we see are the tentacles of this elite club.... I think the head, the brain, the guts of this thing probably lies offshore from the United States”.

This is a brief summary of some of the more common theories, which not all militia members will believe. Another popular view is the suggestion that UFOs have made contact with human governments and they are colluding with corrupt elites, as advanced by William Cooper in Behold a Pale Horse, a book that is both popular and influential in militia circles (and which takes its title from a line in the Book of Revelation 6: 8).

Some conspiracy theories are more mundane, relating to health issues such as fluoride in water supplies, or the belief that high school shootings are caused by giving the drug Ritalin to children. It is belief in conspiracies that informs all resistance from the far right, framed in opposition to the left. Unanimity is not required, merely the identification of common enemies—the enemies of the nation.

Militia and Patriot publications and websites also present an economic analysis, in which the Federal Reserve is depicted as a corrupt body, backed by private banking interests, overseeing a monetary system based upon usury and fictitious capital.

There is a considerable crossover into the tax protest/resistance constituency of Patriots who believe that the payment of income tax—which was introduced illegally in 1912, it is argued—is actually voluntary and not a compulsory obligation.

By refusing to cooperate with the Inland Revenue Service (IRS), Patriots believe that they are striking a blow against the New World Order. By declaring themselves “sovereign citizens” many believe that they can legally evade income tax, so long as they learn “common law” well enough to refute the erroneous arguments of IRS officials in court.

Predictably, run-ins with the IRS have resulted in many would-be Patriots becoming incarcerated or fined, as their common law argu- ments have failed to win out in court. Thus “tax resisters” frequently become available for recruitment to the far right, as was the case with Robert Mathews of The Order, for instance.

In militia publications and websites, comparisons are commonly made with the situation when America was a British colony, ruled by King George III, which resulted in the American Revolution and the overthrow of colonial rule.

This comparison legitimizes resistance against corrupt federal authority, summed up in the oft-repeated quote from Ben Franklin, “They that would give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The vast majority of militia websites and publications, it should be emphasized, express only the utmost loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, which they feel is under threat from traitorous enemies, and they disavow both racism and violence.

It is apparent that the militias’ typical stance, being one of rebellion and distrust of mainstream politics and culture, leads many to come into conflict with law enforcement agencies, and the Militia Watchdog website provides a lengthy litany of militia members and leaders who have been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from firearms offenses, tax evasion, and civil disobedience (such as driving without a valid driver’s license), to more serious ones such as conspiracy to blow up federal buildings.

In some cases, such as that of the Arizona Viper Militia, the leading protagonists in a conspiracy to make bombs turned out to be undercover federal agents (eleven out of the twelve who were arrested in 1996 eventually received prison sentences).

Impact of September 11

Prior to the terrorist attacks of 11 September Mark Pitcavage believed that the militia movement “has certainly declined, but it is not in danger of disappearing, and in fact in many parts of the country it is still very strong. In some parts of the country, where militia arrests laid it low (such as West Virginia and Georgia), it is reforming.”

He also mentioned the “reflowering” of the tax protest movement and the growth in popularity of the “redemption” tactic of common law adherents (a type of financial scam), “active in virtually every single state”. Militias were also able to mobilize supporters for lengthy standoffs with law enforcement agencies in both Indiana and Texas during 2000–2001, at the Indianapolis Baptist Church and the Joel Grey farm, respectively.

Taking the “antigovernment movement” as a whole, of which the militias are but a part, Pitcavage concluded that it “has existed in more or less its present form since the early 1970s and nobody’s managed to stamp it out yet. I doubt it is dead right now.”

However, since 11 September the militias have been somewhat eclipsed by the wave of patriotism that has swept the United States, coupled with the strong support for President Bush and the federal government’s “war on terrorism.” Militia websites have adapted their rhetoric, arguing that terrorism stands alongside socialism, liberalism, and communism as threats to U.S. values and prosperity.

The lesson for the gun lobby—the center of gravity for the militias—was that the plane hijackings could have been avoided if air passengers were allowed to carry guns on board flights: “only self defense by the ‘unorganized militia’ will be available when domestic or foreign terrorists choose their next moment of murder. And here is the public-policy implication of this fact: It would be better if the militia were more prepared to act when it is needed”.

The passengers who fought against the hijackers on Flight 93, which came down in rural Pennsylvania, it is argued, were effectively acting as a citizens’ militia. Individualized security—the right of the citizen to bear arms and form militias—is held as the ideal, contrasted with any notion of collectivized security arrangements carried out by the state in conjunction with the disarming of civilians, which remains anathema to the Right in the United States.

It is clear, however, that militia appeals have lost a degree of salience as a result of 11 September, as there is again an external enemy taking on a similar role to that of international communism during the cold war. As Norm Olson put it, “I don’t want anyone to have the idea that we’re going to bow down to the federal government, but I think this could be a new beginning.... As long as there is a foreign enemy, we will work together with our federal government. George Bush’s enemy is my enemy”.

Nevertheless, given the nature of conspiracist thinking, it is clear that many will be resistant to appeals to support the federal government, and will regard 11 September as a planned event, part of the conspiracy—as does the Freedom Fighter Net, linked from the Michigan Militia site: “As Franklin Delano Roosevelt is quoted as saying: ‘Nothing ever happens in international politics that isn’t planned.’ Our leaders may not have a clue what is actually going on here, but these attacks have New World Order and One World Government written all over them.”

Hidden Agendas?

The pro-militia publication the Patriot Report (run by Christian Identity adherent George Eaton, out of Arkansas) argued that the militias formed in the 1990s as a defensive response to “when the socialist change agents began making offensive moves against the U.S. Constitution and American sovereignty.... the only thing standing in the conspirators’ way of total world conquest,” he continued, “was the few American patriots who still believe in the constitutional American Republic.... It was aggressive and offensive moves by the conspirators for a One World Government that caused the patriot community to recognize tyranny and then to form militias.... The militias are defensive, not offensive or revolutionary”.

Nevertheless, “watchdog” organizations, such as the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and some activists argue that the militias harbor hidden agendas and that racists and antisemites have played influential roles in the formation of the militia movement. They further argue that the “Patriots” who make up the bulk of the membership constituted “the seedbed, if not the realization, of a uniquely American kind of fascism”.

Morris Dees (of Klanwatch—part of the SPLC that Dees heads) describes John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, as “a frequent visitor to the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations,” apparently indicating guilt by association. In Dees’s book Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat, he links the militias directly with Tim McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), suggesting that the movement “led to the most destructive act of domestic terrorism” in U.S. history up until that point.

Dees stated in a letter to the then U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno: “Our office has confirmed the active involvement of a number of well-known white supremacists, Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity, and other extremist leaders and groups in the growing militia movement”. These included established far-right leaders such as Louis Beam (ex–Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon), Bo Gritz (“a notorious antisemite”), and James Wickstrom (a Posse Comitatus leader).

In making the case for the involvement of far-right activists, Dees is not alone in ascribing a meeting that took place in October 1992 at Estes Park, Colorado, as a sort of planning meeting for the formation of the militias. Known as the “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous,” it brought together over 150 far-right leaders, including Richard Butler of Aryan Nations, Red Beckman of the Fully Informed Jury Association, and Larry Pratt, founder of Gun Owners of America, who represented the militant wing of the pro-gun lobby.

The event, which was organized by Pete Peters largely in response to the Ruby Ridge siege that had taken place earlier in the year, featured a keynote speech by Louis Beam in which he outlined the “leaderless resistance” strategy, based upon cellular, decentralized structures apparently similar to those employed by the “Committees of Correspondence” during the American Revolution.

In the article of the same name that explains “Leaderless Resistance,” originally written in 1983, Beam advocates various ways in which “those who love our race, culture, and heritage” can resist “federal tyranny,” which he regards as having replaced the threat of communism in the United States.

Strategies include utilizing “camouflage,” by which Beam means “the ability to blend in the public’s eye the more committed groups of resistance with mainstream ‘kosher’ associations that are generally seen as harmless.”

In other words, racists should involve themselves in groups through being disingenuous about their true ideology. With this in mind, it is clear that it would be impossible to prove that racists and antisemites are dominant within the militias, but at the same time it is a fair assumption that there are at least some present.

Nevertheless, the role of racists should not be overstated. Mark Pitcavage believes that Estes Park was not particularly relevant to the development of the militia movement and that “most militia leaders never even heard of it.” Representatives of both the SPLC and ADL are agreed that the militia movement is not mainly characterized by racism.

Martin Durham argues, “Rather than see Estes Park as the origin of the modern militias it would seem more useful to see it as one of many Patriot initiatives that anticipated, but only in some cases influenced, the emergence of a new wave of paramilitary groups in 1994”. He concludes that far more emphasis should be given to the role of the militant pro-gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association, but more significantly a rival group, the Gun Owners of America (headed by Larry Pratt).

For some, it is the belief in conspiracy theories that is regarded as proof enough that the militias harbor racist sentiments: “This current crop of conspiracy theories is written on a template forged long ago and reshaped by successive tales of secret worldwide conspiracies”. The argument is that the above theories can be traced back to antisemitic conspiracy theories, based on the model of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged account of Jewish plans for global domination.

But this is to overlook the overwhelming religiosity of the movement. Other commentators have drawn attention to what they see as the leading role of Christian “reconstructionists” and antiabortion radicals (often with links to white-supremacist theologies).

But there is far more consensus that it was Pat Robertson’s 1991 bestseller, The New World Order, that did most to pave the way for the militias. It both popularized and brought together secular and religious conspiracy theories in a single overarching analysis that labeled the conspirators as motivated by absolute evil (McLemee).

Robertson specifically rules out blaming “monopoly capitalism” for the problems of the world—there is “some other power at work.” He identifies the “policy elites” who are attempting to dominate the world and concludes that such impulses spring “from the depth of something that is evil, neither well intentioned nor benevolent”.

There is no overt racism or antisemitism in the book, however, although Robertson took considerable flak for his decision to utilize antisemitic sources—he included references to both Eustace Mullins and Nesta Webster, for example.

Rather than demonizing the militias as racist conspiracies guided by antisemitism, Mark Fenster argues that they are better understood if the important modern role of “popular eschatology” is emphasized: that is, the practice of reading and interpreting both history and contemporary events as the signs foretold in the Bible, mediated to a mass market of Christians (hence popular eschatology).

The Book of Revelation is particularly significant, speaking of “fire and smoke and brimstone”; the number of the Beast (666); the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; the violent destruction of Babylon and the slaying of a third of the human population; the hour of judgment; Armageddon; and so on. Rather than preparing for a race war, Fenster feels that militia members are more likely to be preparing to fight it out with the Antichrist, assisting the forces of Christ in the final showdown at Armageddon.

Popular eschatology is based upon a “mechanistic theory of power ... [which] echoes, and at times explicitly borrows, the theories of more secular right-wing conspiracy theories,” but they are not the same thing. Although the lines between religious and secular conspiracy theories are blurred, “they each emerge from distinct, if at times overlapping, social and cultural contexts” (Fenster, 147).

It is, therefore, the difference between conservative Protestantism on the one hand, and modernist/liberal Protestantism on the other, that holds the key to understanding popular eschatology, which is deeply traditionalist and pious. The militias represent the backlash politics of conservative Protestantism, reacting against the domination of “secular humanism” and the (immoral) liberal consensus that prevails in contemporary America.

There are concerns that militias function as “bridges,” facilitating the movement of Christian conservatives toward the far right, as they encounter the secular conspiracy theories of the Christian Right and the John Birch Society, whose tracts are widely available on militia sites, and then become susceptible to the more dangerous extremism of antisemites, whose sites are far less frequently linked (Barkun).

Similarly, Ken Stern (107) uses the notion of “funnels” to describe the way that the movement takes people in over concerns over a wide range of issues, such as gun control and environmental restrictions, and then when they get to the extremist core of the funnel they emerge as antisemites, as did Tim McVeigh.

Militias also represent very real economic interests, such as gun manufacturers who use patriotism to boost sales and who promote gun ownership as the antidote to individual insecurity; anti-environmentalists who support the rights of loggers and mining interests over the efforts by Greens to restrict the use of natural resources and to protect wildernesses; and free market libertarians whose main concern is with maintaining a vibrant culture of antitax militancy and antigovernmentalism.

These diverse interests express no support for racism or antisemitism, but because they employ the myths of nationalism and have a dialectical relationship with the same caricatured versions of their ideological enemies—liberalism and socialism—then they also have to contend with the racists in their midst who regard the nation as an ethnically based entity (belonging to white Europeans) rather than a values-based one (of which all immigrants can become a part). As far as militias are concerned, it is the political Left that has the hidden agenda (the eventual creation of communism), which will result in the enslavement of all nations.

The militias are ideologically “slippery,” and therefore able to recruit beyond the traditional “Christian Patriot” base of support, precisely because they have no need to be open and unambiguous about what they really believe in. They represent symbolic resistance to globalization, multiculturalism, and state power, often reflecting cultural chauvinism, but for every racist militia there is at least one libertarian one.

They are a cause for concern for law enforcement agencies because, as Mark Pitcavage puts it, “they have the tools for violence coupled with an ideology in which violence is not only permissible but if used for the right ends, admirable.” By refusing to specify what the ultimate ends might be they are hoping to move beyond the fringes and into the mainstream.