The FBI may have just charged the Michigan militia group Hutaree with plotting to kill law-enforcement officers and their families, but shortly before that, however, law-enforcement officers were actually seeking out Hutaree’s assistance in local investigations. In an excerpt from Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, available now on Beast Books, John Avlon reports on the roots of the today’s Hatriot movement and why domestic militias are so dangerous.
The plan to assassinate the president was called Operation Patriot. Marine Lance Corporal Kody Brittingham plotted from his barracks at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. With maps of the Capitol Building and a dossier on Barack Obama, he penned a letter explaining his reasons for wanting to join the ranks of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald:
I Kody Brittingham, write this as a letter of intent. I am in full mental health and clear judgment, having consciously made a decision, and in turn do so choose to carry out the actions entailed. I have sworn to defend my country, my constitution, and the values and virtues of the aforementioned. My vow was to protect against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. I have found, through much research, evidence to support my current state of mind. Having found said domestic enemy, it is my duty and honor to carry out by all means necessary to protect my nation and her people from this threat.
You’d think the Civil War had cleared up any questions about the efficacy of the “other option” Glenn Beck is talking about—600,000 Americans died.
Kody Brittingham was arrested before his plot had a chance to be enacted. President Obama spoke at Camp LeJeune in February 2009 without incident, announcing his plan to draw down U.S. forces from Iraq. But Brittingham’s clear, cold-blooded rationalization for assassination—a patriot defending the Constitution against the president by any means necessary—reflected the rhetoric of the emerging Hatriot movement.
They are self-styled patriots armed and ready for a new American Revolution. They talk of martial law, a seizure of guns and imposition of global government, complete with forced internment camps and mass executions. When love of country is mixed with fear of the government and hate for the president, that’s when you become a Hatriot.
“You need to be alert and aware of how close we are to having our constitutional republic destroyed!”
So thundered Stewart Rhodes to a wave of applause on Lexington Green, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2009. The crowd assembled including military veterans and reservists, cops and firefighters, and no small number of Revolutionary War re-enactors. It was the first public meeting of the Oath Keepers. The location and date of the gathering had been chosen carefully. It was the anniversary of the first battle of the American Revolution on that very spot. The Oath Keeper Web site featured a quote from George Washington to set the tone: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own.” The Oath Keepers then added their own dark warning: “Such a time is near at hand again.”
But April 19th has deeper significance for members of the militia movement and their inheritors throughout the United States. It is the date that federal officers attacked the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And it’s the day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt that day with a favorite Hatriot message handed down from Thomas Jefferson: “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Within nine months of their first meeting, Oath Keeper dues-paying membership rose to 3,000—including active-duty military, current and retired police officers and sheriffs—and the organization claims that 15,000 people have signed up to participate on their online forum. They have established themselves as a nonprofit organization, complete with a board of directors. Describing themselves as “The Guardians of the Republic,” the Oath Keepers distribute business cards with orders they will not obey—it’s a step-by-step tour through the Hatriot vision of America. Among them:
• We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.
• We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.
• We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
• We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
• We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.
It’s a world of government-sponsored concentration camps, forced disarmament and international invasion—scary stuff. But where many see fearmongering, the Oath Keepers see themselves as freedom’s last defender. Stewart Rhodes is an engaging and intelligent if angry, guy—he’s taken the stage on MSNBC’s Hardball and won a constitutional prize at Yale Law. He is careful to distance his group from outright advocates of antigovernment violence, writing that “those of you who are in militia have a vital mission which we support and agree with fully. But it is a different mission. We don’t mind at all if people belong to both, but keep the two activities separate.” He also knows the way to disarm critics: To those who see the rise of the Oath Keepers as a response to Obama, he is quick to condemn George W. Bush—he was just too busy during the Bush years to mobilize his ideas into action. And to those who question the repeated concentration camp riff, he pulls the ultimate liberal guilt trip: If internment camps happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should we think it couldn’t happen today. It raises the image of Stewart Rhodes, liberal action hero.
But not all Oath Keepers are as smooth as Stewart Rhodes. In a video posted on the Oath Keepers’ site, a man who describes himself as a former army paratrooper in Afghanistan and Iraq calls President Obama “an enemy of the state,” adding, “I would rather die than be a slave to my government.” Oath Keeper and former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack has said, “The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government.” Extremism is no vice in Hatriot circles: you can even buy T-shirts at the Oath Keeper site that say: “I’m a Right Wing Extremist and Damn Proud of It!”
The Hatriot movement has morphed from the militia movements of the mid-1990s. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that more than 125 new hate groups and 350 new Nativist groups have sprung up since 2005. “One big difference from the militia movement of the 1990s,” the SPLC points out, “is that the face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black.”
The Three Percenters are another new breed of Hatriot, who, like the Oath Keepers, focus on armed resistance and American Revolutionary War imagery. They take their name from the questionable statistic that only 3 percent of the American colonists actively fought for independence.
Therefore the Three Percenters are not only an elite group but also a direct link to the Founding Fathers, making their extremist alienation from mainstream America a badge of honor and secret knowledge. They describe themselves, as “promoting the ideals of liberty, freedom and a constitutional government restrained by law.” But beneath the benign bumper sticker, the loosely affiliated group also professes that they “embrace the American Resistance Movement philosophy”—a survivalist militia incubating network that teaches its followers how to train for the coming fight against tyranny. Their online forums offer a glimpse into a lunatic fringe that is itching to get the fight on: “This government has failed,” writes one registered user known as JV67. “At what point do we follow the example of the Founding Fathers and take up arms against these tyrants?” Three Percenter founder, Mike Vanderboegh, of Pinson, Alabama, is a self-described “former leftist” and SDS member who had a political epiphany reading Nobel economist Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1970s. He became a Second Amendment activist and was involved in the militia movement during the 1990s. The father of three now reluctantly believes the escalation is all but inevitable. As he chronicles the first year of the Obama administration, particularly the attempts to pass health-care legislation, he is bracing for revolution: “You should understand that we are rapidly coming to a point in this country when half of the people are going to become convinced of the illegitimacy of this administration and its designs upon our liberty. Need I remind you that this side is the one with most of the firearms?”
Now Vanderboegh is warning his supporters to be prepared for “The Big Die Off”: “When a computer crashes, you simply discard it and obtain another. When political systems, nations or civilizations fail, they collapse in a welter of blood and carnage, usually ending in mountains of bodies, slavery and a long dark night of tyranny. This is referred to by people today who recognize the existential danger by the short-hand acronym of ‘TBDO’—‘The Big Die Off.’ This is not a video game. There are no do-overs. This is as real as it gets. Your system has experienced one or more fatal errors and must shut down at this time. Whether you survive The Big Die Off with anything left that is worth preserving is up to you.” As Vanderboegh’s home page warns, “All politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war.”
The Far Right Flirts with Secession
After speaking at an Austin Tea Party rally where the crowd repeatedly shouted, “Secede!”, Republican Governor Rick Perry was asked about renewed talk of Texas secession: “There’s a lot of different scenarios,” he said. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that? Texas is a very unique place. . . . when we came to the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that.”
The folks from Fox News were carrying the Texas Tea Party live and couldn’t help but weigh in on Perry’s comments.
greta van susteren: You know, from here, Glenn, listening to Governor Perry last night and watching your crowd and listening to the things that are coming out of Texas—I don’t want to be too dramatic, but it almost seems like Texas is going to secede from the rest of the nation.
glenn beck: I mean, I don’t know—can we get this back here? [Points to a banner] This is on the jib back over here. This says “Texas independence” . . . And the reason is—correct me if I’m wrong—these people love America. They just think Texas does America best!
Suddenly, somehow, the threat of secession is a sign of super-patriotism.
Just days before, Beck had been musing on-air about the same subject: “Does the individual have any rights anymore? Does the state have any rights anymore? And I know, because I’ve heard it, from all of the conservative historians and scholars, and everything else. But you can’t convince me that the founding fathers wouldn’t allow you to secede. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. And if a state says, I don’t want to go there, because that’s suicide, they have a right to back out. They have a right. People have a right to not commit economic suicide. . . . I sign into this Union, and I can never get out, no matter what the government does? I can never get out? Well that leaves only one other option. That doesn’t seem like a good option.”
You’d think the Civil War had cleared up any questions about the efficacy of the “other option” Beck is talking about—600,000 Americans died. But conservative activists keep circling back to the concept, something that would have presumably given them offense if it had been suggested one year before during the presidency of Texan George W. Bush.
Here’s Academy Award–winning actor Jon Voight playing his newfound political role as a conservative pundit in an August interview with the Washington Times: “There’s a real question at stake now. Is President Obama creating a civil war in our own country?”
Focus on the Family’s James Dobson offered a similar applause line at the Council for National Policy: “We are in greater danger right now I think than at any time since the Civil War. . . . What this country desperately needs in coming elections are . . . men and women who cherish liberty and are willing to give their very lives for it and will oppose the evil of liberalism.”
The impulse occasionally gets dressed up as intellectualism, with a summer 2009 column in the American Thinker foreseeing “several regional republics” taking the place of the United States after a civil war inspired by the “overbearing, oppressive leviathan” created by Barack Obama. In anticipation of a civil war, the Oath Keepers include state sovereignty among its list of orders they will not obey: “In response to the obscene growth of federal power and to the absurdly totalitarian claimed powers of the Executive. . . . We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.”
And a new Idaho militia was established in 2009 by army veteran James Ambrose, who explained his decision along the same lines: “I formed it to defend Idaho if it wants to secede. If Idaho decides it no longer wants to be part of the United States, we back that decision.”
So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that when the Senate Health Care Bill was presented in October 2009, the Wingnut netroots were quick to pick up the civil war talk in postings on sites like Michelle Malkin’s HotAir:
• “I don’t want to suggest violence, but I think this nation is headed towards a civil war if things don’t stop. The American people can’t take a whole lot more of this.”
• “Maybe it is time the non Marxist states considered ‘opting out’ of the ‘union.’”
• “I’d sooner die a patriot, than a slave. And even if every one of us is killed . . . I will have considered it an honor to be dead amongst other like minded heroes. Secession and civil war are alternatives to this, and by god if those are the only options left . . . so be it, the democrats forced our hand.”
Overheated echo-chamber chatter about secession and civil war might seem simply creepy if eight states hadn’t recently passed secession resolutions.
On April Fool’s Day 2009, the conservative Georgia State Senate passed a resolution by a vote of forty-three to one threatening to secede from the United States. It was a fool’s resolution, but it was not a joke. It was the work of the Tenthers—advocates of reaffirming the Tenth Amendment. Under the innocuous sounding banner of “Affirming states’ rights based on Jeffersonian principles,” the resolution resuscitated Confederate and segregation-era arguments about nullification—the right of states to nullify the Constitution and disband the United States if the president or federal government assumes powers not explicitly provided for.
The resolution had been co-sponsored by some of the most senior members of the state legislature, including the senate majority leader and president pro-tem. Among the areas enumerated in the Georgia resolution were “Further infringements on the right to keep and bear arms including prohibitions of type or quantity of arms or ammunition”—in other words, a reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban could trigger Georgia to secede from the union. It also reserved to Georgia the right to judge “how far the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom.” The Taliban might have approved.
The strangeness of the Tenthers was put into context by Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman: “The resolution they sponsored is part of a radical rightwing national movement. . . . And while the Georgia resolution is legally meaningless and was passed without debate or even knowledge of most senators, it has had an impact. It has been hailed by, among others, those fighting the conspiracy to create a single North American country, by the Confederate States Militia, by the John Birch Society, and the League of the South, which still pines for the cause of an ‘independent South’ and believes that ‘Southern society is radically different from the society impressed upon it by an alien occupier.’”
In its commitment to conservative secession, the League of the South not only echoes the usual Wingnut talking points about “national socialism: coming to a town near you” but offers books connecting Lincoln to Marx and Hitler as a “Band of Brothers.” It’s the same grouping President Obama is often placed alongside at the Tea Party rallies. Other strains of the neo-Confederate movement find themselves a home in the Hatriot movement, advancing the pseudo-Constitutionalist idea of “Fourteenth Amendment Citizens”—aka African-Americans—who, because their rights were granted by the U.S. government after the Civil War, do not fall under natural law as described by the Declaration of Independence and are therefore lesser citizens than natural-born whites. It’s an arcane example of the lengths to which white supremacists will go to defend bigotry as being sanctioned by the Bible or the Founding Fathers. But I digress.
The Gone with the Wind state wasn’t the only one to sign up for the Tenth Amendment insanity. Similar resolutions passed in Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana and Alaska—all states won by McCain-Palin in 2008. And Sarah Palin, whose husband was a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party for ten years, was one of the few governors to put her signature on the bill, before resigning in the summer of 2009.
Populist conservative appeals, anti–federal government impulses and threats of secession are nothing new, but they take on special resonance with a black president in a bad economy.
Hatriot History, Media and Murder
America has seen militarized right-wing radical groups in the past, playing off the same fears: a tyrannical federal government, a surrender of sovereignty and seizure of all guns.
Survivalist groups like the Minutemen began developing a “patriotic resistance” movement patterned after colonial militias in the early 1960s, doing wilderness military drills, hoarding weapons and ammunition to prepare for a Soviet invasion in advance of what they said was a plan to “confiscate all private fire-arms by the end of 1965.” Its founder, Robert Bolivar DePugh, briefly tried to form a political party, dubbed the Patriot Party, but his plans for political influence were undone when he was arrested for a plot to blow up the Redmond, Washington, City Hall and surrounding power plants, before robbing local banks. Arrests of affiliated Minutemen groups found half-baked plans for a cyanide attack on the United Nations24 and extensive weapons caches including bombs, mortars, machine guns and more than one million rounds of ammunition.
Major General Edwin Walker became a hero to midcentury right-wing militants when he resigned from the military after coming under criticism for distributing John Birch Society literature to troops. The decorated World War II and Korean War combat veteran then led protests against James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi. His rallying cry presaged Wingnut and Hatriot claims today, calling for “a national protest against the conspiracy from within. Rally to the cause of freedom in righteous indignation, violent vocal protest, and bitter silence under the flag of Mississippi at the use of Federal troops . . . This is the conspiracy of the crucifixion by anti-Christ conspirators of the Supreme Court in their denial of prayer and their betrayal of a nation.” Two people were killed and six federal marshals were shot in the fifteen hours of riots that followed. (Walker would later be arrested twice for public lewdness in Dallas park bathrooms.)
The rash of right-wing extremist groups from the explicitly military to overheated anti-communist compelled former President Eisenhower to speak out on the subject in the early 1960s: “I don’t think the United States needs super-patriots,” Ike gently scolded. “We need patriotism, honestly practiced by all of us, and we don’t need these people [who pretend to be] more patriotic than you or anybody else.” President Kennedy also weighed in, warning of “armed bands of civilian guerrillas that are more likely to supply local vigilantes than national vigilance.”
In the ensuing two decades, anti-government leftwing extremist groups dominated headlines, but there were outbursts of far-right violence such as the 1979 massacre in Greensboro, North Carolina, in which KKK and American Nazi Party members shot and killed five leftist protesters, including members of the Communist Workers Party. The recession of the late 1970s and early ’80s saw the rise of the Posse Comitatus groups, which claimed that the highest government authority lay with county officials like sheriffs and that there had been a “subtle subversion” of the U.S. Constitution that reflected a “criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, disfranchise citizens and liquidate the Constitutional Republic of these United States.” By the 1990s, America experienced the rise of the anti-government patriot militia movement, paramilitary groups featuring a mix of white pride and Christian identity politics, fueled by anger at the Bill Clinton–led federal government after deaths at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the culmination of years of escalation, and subsequent scrutiny reduced the militia’s momentum. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked seventy-five plots, attacks and murders from far-right militia types in the years since Oklahoma City.
In total, there were 845 acts of domestic terrorism from far-right and affiliated white supremacist groups between 1954 and 2004, including shootings, bombing and arson. The record shows this is not a benign movement of patriots, but a dangerous strain of extremism with both a rap sheet and a body count.
Today’s Hatriots are potentially even more dangerous because of their ability to recruit and radicalize more people via the Internet. Their job is made easier by Wing nut media heroes and even members of Congress who give comfort to their conspiracy theories.
Alex Jones’s syndicated radio show and his Web sites Prison Planet and Info Wars are a clearing house of conspiracy theories from 9/11 to the New World Order—and a home to unhinged Hatriots eager for “information” they can’t get elsewhere. A self-described paleo-conservative and “aggressive constitutionalist,” Jones is so far right he’s left, establishing himself at the vanguard of fright-wing politics.
“The answer to 1984 is 1776!” is a typical battle cry that endears him to the Hatriots. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Jones eagerly advanced the idea that the Bush administration and bankers were behind the destruction of the World Trade Center (with companion DVDs for sale). Now that Obama is in office, a whole new cottage industry of hate has opened up: He’s selling semi-slick productions with titles like The Fall of the Republic and The Obama Deception, which are passed on like Grateful Dead bootlegs among the Hatriot underground. The pitch is always apocalypse, telling viewers “The last vestiges of our free republic are being swept away . . . the destiny of humanity is in our hands.” The common ground is opposition to the federal storm troopers he sees as trying to impose one-world government on the few remaining patriots left. When Pittsburgh police engaged in modest riot control measures at a 2009 G-20 summit, Jones was ready to climb the ramparts, referring to the police as “complete enemies of America. . . . Our military’s been taken over. . . . This is the end of our country. . . . They’d love to kill 10,000 Americans. . . .The republic is falling right now.”
Given his full-throated embrace of the crazy (always presented as a search for the truth), what’s really troubling is that members of Congress go on Jones’s radio show. Ron Paul is a frequent guest. Texas Republican Louie Gohmert chose the venue to say: “This socialist health care . . . is going to absolutely kill senior citizens. They’ll put them on lists and force them to die early.”
Florida Democrat Alan Grayson used the opportunity to call an aide to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke a “K-Street whore.” Going on Jones’s radio show isn’t just a serious lapse of judgment, it seems to inspire serious lapses in judgment as well.
There is a trickle-down effect to hardworking people who identify with the message of anger and anxiety. The Oath Keeper–affiliated Nevada deli owner Billy Glassberg describes Alex Jones as his “hero”: “He stands for the Constitution, for America and sovereignty. Regardless of whether you want to know something or not, you’ve got to investigate the truth. There’s no more right and there’s no more left. It’s all about Americans and Globalists. That’s it. And it was Globalists behind 9/11.”
His diner, Brooklyn Billy’s, stands less than a mile from the Las Vegas Strip in sight of the Mandalay Bay Casino in the corner of an office park. Next to the sign in the window that boasts “the best pastrami west of New York” another reads “free speech zone.” On the walls are posters of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Al Pacino in Scarface bearing the slogan “Who I trust? I trust me.” Framed on the opposite wall is a yellowing New York Daily News cover dated November 23, 1963. The headline blares “President Shot Dead.” On the glass of the frame, Billy has written, “Killed by the N.W.O.”—i.e., the New World Order. Billy is friendly, unassuming. His mother works the register while he makes the sandwiches in back, listening to Alex Jones’s radio show blaring out of the speakers.
Billy believes that “Obama should be tried for treason.” But it’s not personal. “He’s a puppet in the New World Order. He picked up the ball where Bush left it. . . . As far as the Republican and Democratic Party, Parties, it’s two sides of the same coin. They’re all owned by the same bankers, whether it’s the Rothschilds or the Morgans or the Rockefellers. . . . They put a black face on the New World Order because they know things are getting intense. They know people are starting to figure it out.”
Like Alex Jones, Billy believes that 9/11 was an inside job. He says the planes hitting the towers were “remote controlled.” What happened to the people on the planes, I ask. “What they do in black operations is incredible,” Billy said. “I couldn’t tell you what happened to the people on the planes.” It wasn’t bin Laden—“Al-Qaeda was formed by the CIA under the Carter Administration,” he says.
Billy’s bought into a topsy-turvy worldview where “the new definition for freedom is gonna be servitude.” Obama’s “job is to continue to destroy America for a world government. I mean it’s so—it’s so easy to understand. . . . It’s sick. It’s demented. But it’s true.”
But while Alex Jones is on the fright-wing fringe, Michael Savage reaches an audience of nine million people with his Hatriot-reinforcing predictions. “Martial law,” he announced in 2009, “will be declared in this country over a pretext. I think the likelihood is very high that the gang that has taken over this country will declare . . . a pretext . . . the equivalent of the Reichstag fire [which helped the Nazis take over the German government] . . . to put in a form of martial law.”
Influential figures like Rush Limbaugh unwittingly add fuel to the Hatriot fire with his hyper-partisan exhortations: “If we just sit idly by and let Obama get all this stuff done, we’re cooked. Because this is not just standard, left-wing politics. This is radical, left-wing Marxist socialism—fascism, whatever you want to call it. This is designed to forever remake the United States and to destroy the prosperity-generating capitalist system and private sector.”
When Glenn Beck declares, “There is a coup going on. There is a stealing of America . . . done through the guise of an election,” he is reaffirming Hatriot fears. And when Beck announces that “the government under Bush and under Obama . . . [is] slowly but surely moving us away from our republic and into a system of fascism,” he is singing straight from the Hatriot hymnal without knowing it.
All this apocalyptic fear mongering has an impact on netroot “news” as well. In September, the conservative ’09 magazine Newsmax.com had to pull down an online column from a regular contributor that imagined a “civilized” military coup “as a last resort to resolve the ‘Obama problem.’” It was a rationale that echoed all the Hatriot themes and fears from the Oath Keepers on down:
Officers swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Unlike enlisted personnel, they do not swear to obey the orders of the president of the United States.
They can see that Americans are increasingly alarmed that this nation, under President Barack Obama, may not even be recognizable as America by the 2012 election . . .
Will the day come when patriotic general and flag officers sit down with the president, or with those who control him, and work out the national equivalent of a “family intervention,” with some form of limited, shared responsibility?
Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars.
Military intervention is what Obama’s exponentially accelerating agenda for “fundamental change” toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama’s radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.
In October, the idea of a coup was replaced by an online Hatriot call for revolution. A video anonymously posted on YouTube warned President Obama to “leave now and give us our country back.” “If you stay,” the message continued, “‘We, The People’ will systematically dismantle you, destroy you and reclaim what is rightfully ours. . . . We are angry and we are ready to take back the rights of the people. We will fight and we will win. . . . Dead line [sic] for your national response:
October 15, 2009. Thank you to all patriots who support our cause. . . . Be prepared for when the fateful day of the declaration of war is nationally announced.”
There is an understandable tendency to dismiss the danger of the lone Wingnut whose posts dot Hatriot Web sites. Extreme rhetoric and talk about armed resistance is not the same thing as action. But history shows us that it is most often the lone gunman who takes hate filled teachings to their ultimate extension of outright violence.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, was not a dedicated member of any one militia group. He was a wannabe, an outcast who felt rejected even by the militia men themselves. Likewise, the anarchist assassin of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, was not acting on the orders of an anarchist group. His fanaticism was so intense that he was thought to be a government agent and not welcomed into the anarchist circles of Chicago—not a generally discerning lot. The figure of the lone gunman was defined by the paranoid Marxist U.S. marine who moved to Moscow and then re-defected, Lee Harvey Oswald. Even Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic bomber driven by anti-abortion and anti-gay beliefs, was influenced by indoctrination but acted alone. These figures were darkly inspired by the velocity of rhetoric around them.
The line between political fantasy and reality can blur for the unhinged. Hatriot fears can have deadly consequences, with a body count evident in the first six months of 2009 alone.
On April 4, three Pittsburgh police officers were shot and killed by Richard Andrew Poplawski, wearing body armor and wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Poplawski was a frequent visitor to Alex Jones’s Web sites and a poster on the white supremacist Stormfront.org, expressing fears that America is controlled by a cabal of Jews, that U.S. soldiers would be used against American citizens and a ban on guns be imposed.
On April 25, Joshua Cartwright, a Florida national guardsman, shot and killed two Florida sheriff’s deputies as the officers attempted to arrest Cartwright on domestic violence charges. In the police report Cartwright’s wife said he “believed that the U.S. Government was conspiring against him. She said he had been severely disturbed that Barack Obama had been elected President.”
On May 31, Scott Roeder walked into a Wichita, Kansas, church and shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, who as part of his practice performed late-term abortions. Roeder was a member of the Posse Comitatus-descended Freemen movement in the 1990s, which asserted its members were “sovereign citizens” not subject to federal law while African-Americans were “14th amendment citizens.” In 1996, Roeder had been pulled over and found to have a pound of gunpowder attached to a nine-volt battery and a switch as well as blasting caps and bullets. The prosecutor in the case described him—accurately, as it turned out—as a “substantial threat to public safety.”
On June 10, James von Brunn, an eighty-eight-year old neo-Nazi walked into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., killed a forty year-old African-American security guard, Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, and wounded several others. Von Brunn had previously served six years in prison for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve at gunpoint. A note left in his car read, “You want my weapons, this is how you’ll get them . . . the Holocaust is a lie . . . Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to. Jews captured America’s money. Jews control the mass media.”
The common Hatriot strains behind all these killings are more chilling when you consider that President Obama received more death threats in the months after his election than any president on record 44—and he received Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate because of repeated threats to his life. Some of the plots have been serious, others half-baked, while chat room comments about Obama’s assassination are made almost offhand, such as an exchange on the draft-Palin site TeamSarah.com where one poster named Heather described Election Day as the “most terrible” in history and then asks “how long until obama is shot??????” To which a poster named Josie responded: “There are plenty of people that would like to see Obama end that way.”
So when you see militia groups recruiting at Tea Parties with signs that say “AK-47: Today’s Pitchfork” or when a Washington, D.C., man is found to have an M-16 gun and two pistols which had been inscribed by a local gunsmith with the words “Christian Warrior” and “NoBama,” it’s worth being concerned.
There is a cost to the constant drumbeat that turns political opponents into personal enemies. All that’s left is an unhinged soul who takes the hate as a call to heroism—the small but decisive step from being ready to die for a cause and being willing to kill for it. As one federal law enforcement agent, speaking anonymously of the Hatriots’ rise, said: “All it’s lacking is a spark. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.