Jeffrey Kaplan is assistant professor of history at Artic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska.
This article appeared in The Christian Century June 19-26, l996, pp.657-662. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Militias and the Future of the Far Right, by Jeffrey Kaplan
Both books reviewed serve to explain the appearance of a great deal of anti-government anger in the militia movement and other right-wing causes.
Every Knee Will Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family. By Jess Walter Regan Books, 373 pp., $24. 00.
A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. By Kenneth S. Stern. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $24. 00.
Why are Americans joining private armies to fight the American government, while defining their actions as patriotism?" Kenneth S. Stern asks. In the wake of Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, public officials and private citizens have pondered the sudden appearance of the citizen militias. Many wonder whether the rapid growth of militias across the American heartland could have taken place without some significant mainstream appeal. And many, especially in the Jewish community, note and fear the militias' potential for anti-Semitism.
Stern and Jess Walter tell much the same story, but from strikingly different perspectives. Taken together, the two books cast light on the appearance in the American public square of an antigovernment anger that once was the province of the most distant fringes of American politics.
Walter illuminates the cultic milieu in which the family of Randy and Vicky Weaver was first introduced to the esoteric doctrines of Identity Christianity. In this milieu of forgotten and forbidden knowledge, the earnest seeker is presented with a vast array of conspiratorial scenarios and religious visions which unfold against the backdrop of the timeless battle of good against evil. The Weavers gradually absorbed not only the racist religious doctrines of Christian Identity, but became familiar with the world of UFOs and alien intelligences, the supposed machinations of the Bilderbergers and the Illuminati and, most of all, the alleged conspiracies of those who were said to be the literal offspring of Satan, the Jews.
Fortified by their belief in biblical inerrancy and convinced by Identity hermeneutics of the imminence of the Apocalypse, the Weavers retreated to the isolation of a distant mountain cabin at Ruby Ridge in rural Idaho. There, Vicky Weaver could homeschool her children, and the family could to a degree live off the land. But the family found itself engaged in constant disputes with neighbors. Worse, their several visits to Richard Butler's Aryan Nations compound drew the attentions of the federal government.
A government informant struck up a relationship with Randy Weaver, and this eventually resulted in Weaver's selling, at the informant's request, several illegally sawed-off shotguns. Weaver's subsequent arrest on these gun charges was intended less to incarcerate him than to induce him to inform on others in the Identity movement. However, a circus of errors -- first legal mistakes by a local part-time magistrate, and later the incorrect assignment of a court date for Weaver's case -- convinced the family that a Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) plot was afoot,. They retreated to their cabin to await the End.
This prompted a year of low-level surveillance by a local. federal marshal, and then a shoot-out in which a federal marshal, the Weaver's young son Samuel, and the family dog were killed. The FBI's Hostage Rescue Unit then intervened, armed with rules of engagement that read like "shoot to kill" orders. Those orders led directly to the killing of Vicky Weaver as she stood behind the door of the cabin with her baby in her arms.
Vicky Weaver's death generated a rage throughout the radical right which has yet to abate. Then there was the matter of timing. The trial of Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris took place against the backdrop of the events at Waco. Together, Waco and Ruby Ridge spurred the formation of the militia movement as a defense against a federal government that is seen as determined to destroy all vestiges of opposition
The strength of Walter's presentation is his neutrality. The book resonates with compassion for all who were caught up in the events at Ruby Ridge, yet that compassion never overwhelms critical judgment. Randy Weaver, for example, emerges as a stubborn but weak man, who drew strength from his strong-willed wife; After her death, his
oldest daughter, Sarah, assumed the role of the matriarch. Yet Walter does not focus solely on the Weavers. While condemning the bungled operation and the poorly executed cover-up which followed, Walter is able to draw sympathetic portraits of the federal agents involved at the scene and to mourn the loss of federal marshal William Degan no less than the deaths of Vicky and Samuel Weaver.
Stern, the American Jewish Committee's watchdog on the radical right, also is vitally concerned with the impact of Waco and Ruby Ridge. But for Stem, the milieu of Identity Christianity and the militias is an undifferentiated realm of unreasoning hatred. Only the federal government, in Stern's view, has the resources and the moral authority to protect us from the violent enmity of the radical right. Thus, the FBI and to a lesser degree the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms emerge as the strong, if flawed, shield of the nation. Their vigilance is all that stands between us and the "millions of Americans" whom Stern posits as sympathetic to the militia message. His book expresses the American Jewish community's fear of an armed and active right wing -- a fear which itself has become an important subtext in the militia movement.
Stem contends that the militias represent a virulent form of anti-Semitism which has the potential to infect a greater segment of Americans than the militias' meager numbers (about 10,000 by most estimates) would suggest. He offers as evidence a litany of recent congressional developments, such as the vote in the House of Representatives to gut the Clinton administration's counterterrorism bill -- a move that Henry Hyde (R., Ill.) attributed to a corrosive distrust of government on the part of a broad coalition in Congress. Consider as well the so-called "sagebrush rebellions" against federal control of vast areas of the western U.S -- a revolt that gave birth to many threats and acts of violence directed at Park Service personnel. To this could be added the recent congressional hearings in which militia leaders received a surprisingly respectful hearing from a subcommittee chaired by Senator Arlen Specter (!R., Pa.). A tearful Randy Weaver was given a more than sympathetic hearing by the same committee, which in turn castigated the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI for their actions at Ruby Ridge.
Equally ominous in Stern's view are militia "agents of influence," activists or fellow travelers who advance the militias' "politics of hate" at local, state, federal and even international levels. All act openly in the political process, and their ideas are spread widely via the Internet -- Stem's primary research tool. These agents include people like Larry Pratt, a far-right Washington lobbyist on guns and abortion whose less savory affiliations led to his resignation as national cochairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign.
More threatening still are the activities of two Idaho Republicans, Helen Chenoweth, a freshman congresswoman, and Senator Larry Craig, whom Stern depicts as primary examples of the militia's influence in high places. After a questionable preliminary chapter that connects the militias to every far-right-wing group in American history, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Silent Brotherhood (the Order), Stern builds his model of how militia ideas infiltrate the American mainstream. He believes that those ideas have found favor with "millions of supporters" through the militias' appeal to selected constituencies that are concerned with such issues as gun control and land use and are animated by a pervasive fear of "Washington," a fear Waco and Ruby Ridge dramatically confirmed.
Stern's Foreword offers a remarkable portrait of how the decision to focus on a particular movement was reached by watchdog groups. First, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed that "these new private armies posed an imminent danger." Next, they faxed their findings to the government and the media, both of which were deaf to their pleas. This impasse was broken when Representative Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), armed with Stern's 600-page manual composed of "media clips, Internet postings, and militia literature," tried to organize congressional hearings. That Schumer's role in introducing AJC material into the political process mirrors what Chenoweth and Craig are accused of doing for the militias is an irony that goes unremarked.
While lobbying Congress for hearings, the AJC relentlessly pushed for the passage of antiparamilitary legislation. The adoption by some states of this legislation was in large part responsible for the fading popularity of radical-right events such as the Aryan Nations annual congress and other activities sponsored by groups like John Harrell's Christian Patriots Defense League.
Stern offers four reasons for asserting that the militias are intrinsically anti-Semitic: 1) Many of the figures in the militia movement such as John Trochmann and Bo Gritz (who is not a militia leader but does have influence) are anti-Semites. 2) Anti-Semitic literature is invariably found at militia gatherings. 3) Terms like "states' rights" and "county supremacy" are frequently used as code words by such anti-Semitic groups as the (now defunct) Posse Comitatus. 4) The conspiracy theories that underlie the movement are rooted in the anti-Semitic text "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
There is some truth to all these allegations. Many leaders and rank-and-file adherents of the militia movements are indeed openly anti-Semitic, and anti-Semitic literature is displayed at militia gatherings and gun shows (not to mention in many Afrocentric bookstores). But these share space with "how to" manuals, survivalist literature, a bewildering variety of religious appeals, exposes of the latest cover-ups of UFO activities and much, much more. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are but one item in a sea of arcane literatures.
As I have written earlier in these pages ("A guide to the far right," August 2-9, 1995), the militias are in many ways the successors to the tax resistance movement of the 1980s. Tax resistance provided a portal to the vast array of theologies and ideologies of the American cultic milieu -- including the doctrines of the Posse Comitatus, who regard all jurisdictions higher than that of the county as illegitimate. Like today's militia groups, tax resistance had a strikingly ecumenical appeal, offering a place to any and all who perceived the Internal Revenue Service as an illegal collection arm of a morally and financially bankrupt nation. Unlike the militias, however, tax resistance never had the potential to form significant links to the dominant society. Its arguments were simply too esoteric and the costs of opposing the IRS were too high.
The militia movement is more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and religious background and focuses on issues with wider resonance. These links to the mainstream culture on the one hand and the wider reaches of the cultic milieu on the other may so far have dampened the anti-Semitic paranoia, which today afflicts only a portion of the movement.
Nevertheless I have gradually come to agree with Stern that anti-Semitism will increasingly be typical of the militia movement. There are three reasons for this. First, there has been an across-the-board rise in temperature among oppositional religious and political movements. Both in interviews and in their literature, members of such movements as the militias, the skinheads and the pro-life rescue movement express increasing anger. This darkening mood may be traced most directly to Waco and Ruby Ridge, and may have motivated the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
On a deeper level, the sudden and dizzying changes taking place in the American economy, combined with the even more bewildering changes brought by the end of the cold war, foster radical social movements of every description. Adverse economic conditions in the past have proven to be fertile breeding grounds for anti-Semitism. It would be surprising if militia supporters were to prove more resistant to this demonology than others have been. An atmosphere of anger and paranoia fuels the desire to find a scapegoat.
There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work here as well. R. N. Taylor has observed that if we give a wolf a bad name, he'll live up to it. Such was the case with the former neo-Nazi leader Ingo Hasselbach, who reports that the East German National Socialist skinhead movement was born of disaffected but essentially apolitical youths who discovered Nazism only when the state and other hated authority figures labeled them as "neo-Nazis."
The case of Morris Dees, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center and author of the recent book Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, illustrates another dynamic. The SPLC has been as outspoken as have the Jewish groups, and though Dees is not Jewish, the far right firmly identifies him as a Jew on the basis of his actions, a distinction he shares with, among others, Franklin Roosevelt.
Indeed, as Michael Shafir has demonstrated in discussing the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Romania and Poland, anti-Semitism does not require the presence of actual Jews to flourish in times of crisis, for national leaders can be "judaized." Helene Loow has explored an analogous phenomenon in Scandinavia, where the "Judaization" of local leaders has encouraged the rapid acceptance of the American ZOG discourse, despite the dearth of local Jews.
Stern notes the argument that an overly aggressive legislative (and by implication, police) response to militias might risk increasing the militias' paranoia, but he dismisses it with the flat assertion that the militias are already so paranoid that their attitude simply cannot get any worse. This is a dangerously myopic view.
The militias can become much more paranoid. Previously, when American paramilitary groups became convinced of the inevitability of official persecution, their most militant adherents shifted from a defensive to an offensive mind-set, unleashing terrorist violence. This is the course followed by the Order's leader, Robert Mathews, in his evolution from tax protester to revolutionary. It is a course that Stern's aggressive prescriptions may make inevitable for the most dedicated of the militia movement.
Stern and the AJC would profit from the adapting lessons taught by the AJC's Rabbi S. A. Fineberg in the 1940s and 1950s when faced with such genuine anti-Semites as Gerald L. K. Smith and George Lincoln Rockwell. Fineberg's successful policy of "dynamic silence" was designed to isolate anti-Semites from access to the public square. Applied to militias that have not adopted an anti-Semitic posture, this policy would mean talking no public action against groups whose agendas may be unpopular or even bizarre. The militia movement's stance on such issues as gun control or abortion or the sightings of UN troops in the American heartland do not threaten the Jewish community and thus need not trigger the public opposition of the Jewish community. Where anti-Semitism is found in segments of the militia movement, however, reaction should be measured, truthful, and focused on that particular group rather than on broad-brush attacks on the movement as a whole.
The Title of Benjamin Ginsberg's 1993 book The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State points to the inevitability of a rapid increase in militia anti-Semitism given the confluence of rising anger and an increasingly strident watchdog campaign calling for action against militia groups. Ginsberg notes that throughout history Diaspora Jewry has of necessity sought to ally itself with the governments of its host nations. This policy has been largely advantageous, in some eras and some places allowing Jews to assume positions of considerable prominence. Rarely, however, have the Jewish people found the level of acceptance and success they enjoy in the contemporary U.S. In a nation in which Jews constitute barely 2 percent of the population, they account for close to half its billionaires, for the leadership of all three major television networks and many movie studios, for the ownership of the nation's largest chain of newspapers, and for considerable percentages of university faculties.
Ginsberg notes, however, that the fortunes of the Jewish people have always fluctuated. One day the embrace of the state may be beneficial and the polity benign, but this felicitous state can change rapidly. Moreover, as Ginsberg correctly states, governments under attack from their own citizenry have often been less than zealous in sheltering their Jewish supporters. The statistical measures of Jewish success which Ginsberg notes with justifiable pride have for some years fed the conspiratorial fantasies of the radical right. Indeed, these believers regard them as the mathematical proof of ZOG theory.
To this point, ZOG theory and the pervasive anti-Semitism which it objectifies have planted only the weakest of roots in the militia movement. As antigovernment anger spreads, however, there will be an increasing focus on the most outspoken proponents of government action against the militias. In militia circles, the perceptual merging of such Jewish organizations as the AJC and the ADL with the power of the U.S. government is growing. This process led to the birth of ZOG theory in the American radical right in the 1980s. It appears to be only a matter of time before the militias accept the "fatal embrace" of the Manichaean ZOG theory and of its most radical proponents in the U.S.radical right.