The Short Career of an American Militiaman
by Jane Kramer (NY: Pantheon Books, 2002)
(This column first appeared in the March 6, 2003, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
In two ways our eye has been taken off one of the balls that must still concern us in America today. First, we focused quite rightly on the terrorism threats of foreign agents after 9-11, and now we find ourselves still further removed by our war games with Iraq and North Korea. The ball I speak of is the militia movement. (I should be careful here, because our National Guard is often referred to as a militia and that is a perfectly acceptable armed force. The militias of which I speak here are independent groups that foster beliefs antithetical to our accepted laws and social compact.)
It is the leader of just one of those groups of whom Jane Kramer speaks in her well drawn, but frightening book, Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman.
Here she sets the stage for her story, written before our attention was further distracted by Iraq: "My colleague Cathy Logg, an ex‑Marine and Bellingham grandmother who at the time of John's arrest was covering crime for the Bellingham Herald, told me that after John's trial ended, in 1997, she had fought to keep the story of the Washington State Militia open, and lost. 'My boss kind of thought, 'They've arrested these guys, and the rattlesnake is dead,' and I said, 'Noooo, they've just cut off the rattle,' was the way she put it, and of course she was right. For one thing, it's harder to stay rattling aboveground than it once was. Militias that court attention -‑ militias with leaders like John who go public with their names and numbers and what John used to call their 'Good Samaritan' faces, and talk to reporters, and make speeches -‑ are, almost by definition, the easiest ones to infiltrate (and so many undercover cops and agents were fed into the militia movement in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, that it's likely all of them were infiltrated). For another, a good argument can be made that, with the right in the White House, a few militiamen, at least, have started sleeping better and, by extension, that any militiaman who isn't sleeping better was probably headed underground all along. Norman Olson, who once ran the Michigan Militia (and was so eager for attention himself that he called to confirm the connection between his own Michigan Militia and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City conspirator..., before anyone even knew about a connection) disbanded his latest militia a few months after George W. Bush's inauguration, telling reporters, with some disgust, that 'across the nation, there is a satisfaction among Patriots with the way things are going.' The difference, of course, is that in the mid‑nineties Bill Clinton was still in the first term of a two‑term presidency, the Senate was still in Democratic hands, and the radical right was represented by Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House and, as it turned out, a man who could have been bought off with a short ride in Air Force One. Today, the country has a war on terror that is not homegrown, a born‑again president, an attorney general more highly regarded on the Patriot Web sites than in the New York Times, and a House whip who sounds as if John Pitner drafts his stump speeches. The Good Samaritan faces are what you see in Congress, though right now their preoccupation has shifted from the Wall Street conspiracy to the conspiracy called Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Wall Street on September 11, 2001. The problem for militias today is less the tedium of satisfaction than it is a kind of ideological conflict of interest, since Osama bin Laden's followers seem to have precisely the same enemies they do -‑ with the notable distinction that Al Qaeda's enemies list includes white American Christians, people like them, while theirs has always included foreigners, or, you could say, people who are not white, American, and Christian. Some of the supremacist groups have managed to get around this the way one American neo‑Nazi did when he posted a note of congratulations to the terrorists of September 11th, praising them for 'testicular' courage while reminding them not even to think about 'marrying our daughters.' But it was not the sort of thing a Good Samaritan would say."
Ms. Kramer has a perfect eye for what attracts people to such groups: "The government was the liaison in John's conspiracy stockpot. It collected everyone's enemies in one sinister common cause, and it certainly made life simpler when you knew that all those enemies were either slaves of the government, instruments of the government, or, like Rockefeller and his friends at the Council on Foreign Relations, were telling the government what to do. Denizens of Whatcom County in the mid‑nineties were eager for something simple, for some way to take their vague and unsettled grudges against the sort of people they were unlikely ever to encounter there -‑ the immigrant hordes and ghetto masses waiting to swarm into the county after the invasion and rape their women, murder their children, and even steal their guns -‑ and to connect those grudges to the taxes and zoning codes and environmental regulations that mocked their heritage as free white American men and, as real Patriots put it, 'womenfolk.' They wanted enemies who were responsible, the way Russia had been responsible, because now that the Berlin Wall was down and the Communists were gone, they seemed to have lost their bearings. They didn't know why, if the Russians had been to blame for every problem they had had at home, for every humiliation, every failure, they still suffered from the same problems. They didn't know why life wasn't perfect, why they weren't perfect, now that the Soviet Union had disappeared. In this, they were just like John."
The name of the game is clearly "Blame".
Ms. Kramer is best at displaying the paranoia of her subject: "There were good days and bad days. 'I've got to get the point across and I just can't falter,' he said on one of the good ones, when he wasn't looking gray or scared or complaining about losing Debbie. That was the day he talked about how 'selfless' and 'neighborly' he'd always been ‑- how selfless and neighborly most Americans had been, before the Federal Reserve stole their money and the War Powers Act started eating away their liberty. He wasn't sure when this had actually happened. Sometimes, in our conversations, he dated the War Powers Act at 1794, sometimes at 1933, but never at 1973, which was when it, in fact, was drafted. And in the event he got the terms backwards. (It was an article of Patriot faith that the War Powers Act gave American presidents the right to seize public moneys to finance armies and wage undeclared wars, whereas the act was written, in response to an escalating Vietnam War, in order to prevent that from happening again.) Talking law with somebody like John, somebody who believed that the War Powers Act was responsible for drivers' licenses and the Rothschild family for capital gains taxes, was an exercise in patience, since he could always claim, and usually did claim, that my copies of the Britannica and the Congressional Record and even the Constitution were forgeries, straight from the printing press of the conspiracy."
This individual was shut down. But there remain hundreds more out there. Check the web and you'll see.