11.03.11

Georgia Terror Plot's Militia Roots

The four elderly Georgia men busted for targeting federal officials come from a strain of the far-right fringe that has been courting violence for years. John Avlon reports.

The Hatriots have reared their heads again—this time in the form of a Georgia domestic terrorist plot against law-enforcement officials that variously contemplated ricin attacks, blowing up a federal building, and targeted assassination.

The defendants in this case were notable for their advanced age—ranging between their 60s and early 70s—but their rhetoric was what we’ve come to expect from these unhinged self-styled super-patriots who love their country but hate their government. They would do violence to the Constitution in order to save it.

“There’s no way for us, as militiamen, to save this country, to save Georgia, without doing something that’s highly illegal: murder,” said group leader Frederick Thomas according to an affidavit released by the FBI. “When it comes to saving the Constitution, that means some people gotta die.”

Among his three fellow antigovernment co-conspirators were two former government employees, Ray Adams and Samuel J. Crump—a lab researcher for the Department of Agriculture and a maintenance worker for the Center for Disease Control, respectively, who were charged with trying to obtain the airborne poison ricin. A third man, Emory Dan Roberts, was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-Confederate activist and a “captain” in the 440 Squad of the Georgia Militia.

Over a series of months earlier this year, the men plotted various targets, conducted surveillance, bought weapons, and committed to what they see as the necessity of violence.

“Let’s shoot the bastards that we discover are anti-American,” Thomas said. “And to me the best way to do that is to walk up behind them with a suppressed .22”  “I could shoot ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and IRS all day long,” he continued. “All the judges and the DOJ [Justice Department], and the attorneys and prosecutors.”

In another instance, Thomas specifically invoked the specter of Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 men, women, and children in the 1995 destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  “We’d have to blow the whole building, like Timothy McVeigh,” he said.  “We gotta have a lot of explosives.”

In the past year and a half there have been at least three foiled militia plots that explicitly targeted law enforcement officers.

According to the affidavit, when Thomas asked who among them was also willing to commit murder, Adams responded, “I am … I’d say the first ones that need to die is the ones in the government buildings … When it comes down to it, I can kill somebody.”

“This is only the latest manifestation of the patriot militia movement we have seen grow since 2008,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in a phone interview. “In 2008 we counted 149 patriot militia groups operating in the United States—by 2010 that number had increased to 824—that’s a 500 percent increase. It’s hard not to notice that this jump coincides with both the rise to power of Barack Obama and the subprime mortgage collapse.”

“This plot was unusual because of the age of the men involved, but in most other ways it shows what we have been seeing since well before 9/11: there has long been a serious threat in this country of domestic right-wing terrorism, and while it has been overshadowed by the radical Islamist threat, it isn’t going away,” added Prof. Erik Dahl of the Naval Post-Graduate School via email.  “As we have seen many times in other contexts, it only takes one or two individuals with a grudge against the government and a weapon to do a great deal of damage.”

In the past year and a half there have been at least three foiled militia plots that explicitly targeted law-enforcement officers—the Hutaree from Michigan and the Alaska Peacekeeper’s Militia, who were indicted of targeting a judge and an IRS agent.

But in an interesting twist, the Georgia men in question are claiming they gained inspiration for the attacks from a self-published online novel written by Mike Vanderbough, an Alabama militia leader in the 1990s, who now lives on disability but infamously called for bricks to be thrown through the windows of Democratic congressional-district offices during the health-care vote.  More recently, Vanderbough received a mainstreaming of sorts when he was repeatedly used by Fox News as an on-air analyst as part of their coverage of the “Fast and Furious” federal gun investigation, calling him a “whistleblower” without bothering to mention his previous connections.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the introduction of Vanderboegh’s self-published novel Absolved frames the tale as a “cautionary tale for the out-of-control gun cops of the ATF ... For that warning to be credible, I must also present what amounts to a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry,” Vanderboegh writes. “They need to know how powerful they could truly be if they were pushed into a corner.”

This rhetoric is consistent with what I heard during an extensive telephone interview with Vanderboegh for my book Wingnuts.  He has repeatedly written about the need for defensive strikes against the government: “if we are to avoid civil war, we must get their attention BEFORE the IRS thug parties descend upon us each in turn—when we will be forced into dozens of defensive slaughters and then, to end it, forced yet again to call Pelosi and the other architects of this war upon their own people to final account.” Likewise, at a gun rally in Virginia last year, he declared “Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary powers, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience.”

Now that some readers have apparently tried to heed his call, Vanderboegh is busy backtracking and throwing his would-be followers under the bus, telling Fox News that his novel has been misrepresented. “What kind of moron uses the phrase ‘save the Constitution’ and then goes out to try and distribute ricin?” Vanderboegh told them. “This has got to be the Alzheimer’s gang. What political point is made there? I don’t understand what was going on in the minds of these Georgia idiots.” This doesn’t quite jibe with the quote that used to prominently crown Vanderboegh’s blog: “All politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for Civil War.”

The point is not that Vanderboegh or his novel are directly responsible for the plots by the Georgia Four any more than the heavy-metal band Judas Priest could be blamed for provoking suicides in its impressionable listeners. But he has consciously contributed to the cycle of incitement in the far-right fringe and helped fuel the Hatriot movement with his armed antigovernment fantasies. The fact that someone at Fox News thought it was a good idea to expose this man to a mass audience as an on-air analyst on anything is itself at best a seriously bad judgment call that begs for accountability. This is a case of playing with forces that can easily get out of control.

A look at the self-justifying statements of murder by these Georgia militia members is a reminder of just why the dramatic increase in the number of militia groups in our nation is a real cause for concern. Hate and fear are powerful recruiting tools that can give a sense of purpose to the most unhinged among us—and they can also be poisonous to our body politic.