Toward Comparative Studies of the U.S. Militia Movement [*]
Freilich, Joshua D., Pienik, Jeremy A., Howard, Gregory J., International Journal of Comparative Sociology
The purpose of this paper is to place the U.S. militia movement into proper historical context through the use of a comparative method. Militias in the United States are often depicted as dangerous and extreme right-wing groups that warrant significant monitoring and control. The sense of danger associated with the militias is perhaps exacerbated by the tendency to think of these groups as an unprecedented social phenomenon. Early reports of U.S. militias in news reports tended to neglect the historical forerunners of this movement, and this omission promoted the view that militias are unique developments. Expanding upon work by Durham (1996), this article seeks to deepen our historical appreciation of U.S. militias. Beginning with the observation that comparative studies of the militia movement have been hampered by a failure to systematically define the subject of study, we employ five analytic categories -- ideology, motivation, mobilization, organization, and ritual -- in an effort to describe U.S. milit ias. Having outlined these categories and applied them to U.S. militias, we then compare and contrast the militias with right-wing forerunners in the United States such as the Silver Shirts, KKK, and Know Nothing Party. We conclude with several suggestions for advancing comparative investigations into the U.S. militia movement.
OVER THE PAST few years, the militia movement has been associated with a number of nefarious events and has been depicted by some observers as a dangerous, right-wing, extremist movement in need of close monitoring. Morris Dees, founder of the watchdog group known as the Southern Poverty Law Center, and co-author with James Corcoran of the book titled Gathering Storm, had this to say about U.S. militias in the book's preface:
This is the story of a very dangerous movement, one the public knows almost nothing about.... Much of what I write about, I learned from close contact with many of the far right extremists who are behind the militia movement (Dees and Corcoran 1996, Preface).
Reminding readers that the U.S. militia movement has been linked to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which Dees and Corcoran (1996) declare as "the most destructive act of domestic terrorism...in our nation's history," they caution that if the movement is not contained, "it could lead to widespread destruction or ruin" (p. 2). For his part, Mark Pitcavage (1998), founder of the group called the Militia Watchdog, informs readers that militia members commonly collect illegal weapons and explosives, adding that "some members go further than collecting weapons and actually plan to use them....As a result...[the militia movement] includes many people willing to commit criminal acts" (pp. 15-16). Hilliard and Keith (1999) concur, explaining that "since the 1995 Oklahoma City terror, bombings have increased throughout the United States, many of them attributed to right-wing militia organizations" (p. 5). Indeed, Robert Snow (1999). a former detective in the Indianapolis Pol ice Department, claims that:
only skillful, painstaking work by law enforcement agents has prevented other radical militia members from committing other devastating tragedies such as we saw in Oklahoma City....The militia movement presents a very real and imminent threat to everyone (pp. ix-x).
Egan (1995) reports that a militia leader in Montana has directed threats at several public officials, observing that "there cannot be a cleansing without the shedding of blood," and that some federal agencies in Idaho "have virtually stopped performing some of their duties fearing violence" (p. A1). "The militia people," writes investigative reporter Jack Anderson (1996), "are simply out of touch with reality, which unfortunately does not discourage some of them from plotting maniacal assaults on law and order" (p. 76). While Schneider (1994) notes simply that "concern about the militias is growing nationwide" (p. A14), Snow (1999), in rather direct language, concludes that it is "unquestionable" that a militia leader "could exhort his followers into committing violence under the cloak of patriotism" (p. 231). Therefore, he recommends that authorities should "move in, enforce the law, and put the militias out of business" (Snow 1999:232).
When the public is asked about its view of U.S. militias, they are often envisioned as a "clear and present danger to every American citizen" (Snow 1999:ix). That this perception should be so popular is not surprising when one considers that the news media (i.e., television, print, and Internet), which are largely responsible for creating the public's perception of militias, have consistently linked the movement to a number of high profile crimes (e.g., the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City and the 1996 bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta). Similarly, as we have noted above, many watchdog groups portray militias in a manner designed to incite fear and alarm (e.g., Anti-Defamation League [ADL] 1994, 1995, 1997; American Jewish Committee [AJC] 1995; Center for Democratic Renewal [CDR] 1996a, 1996b; Coalition for Human Dignity [CHD] 1995; Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC] 1997). Evidence that such representations of militias have been absorbed by the public is provided by one Yankelovich poll, administered in t he wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, which found that 80 percent of Americans thought militias were dangerous, 63 percent thought they were a threat to our way of life, and 55 percent thought militiamen were "crazy" (Anderson 1996; see also Kelly 1995; Mariani 1998; Snow 1999).
The sense of fear and alarm that the public seems to feel for the U.S. militia movement has likely been exacerbated by the tendency to conceive of this movement as something of an unprecedented phenomenon. When newspapers in the United States began to report on the militia movement sweeping the nation, the stories typically presented the militias as a unique development. For instance, in the headline to a story in the Detroit News, Dammann (1994) depicted militias as "marching to their own beat" (p. 1A). This newspaper article and others like it did not explicitly discuss the similarities between U.S. militias and earlier groups (Downes and Foster 1994; Hawkins 1994; Schneider 1994). This failure to make historical connections has promoted misconceptions about U.S. militias and has no doubt contributed to the angst that many feel about this movement.
Although early news reports tended to stoke this misconception that militias were without precedent, some observers have fortunately published antidotes to this gloss. Durham (1996), for instance, has observed:
The militias are a new part of the American right, and the conspiratorial thinking they espouse has some new elements. But neither opposition to the New World Order nor the belief in hidden troops and concentration camps nor even the organization of militias is a recent innovation (p. 70).
In other words, those aspects of the militias that are most often thought to be unique are not so new after all. "In 1962," Durham (1996) writes, "California members of a much publicized paramilitary organization of the time, the Minutemen, were reported to have claimed that large numbers of Chinese troops were gathered on the Mexican border ready to invade" (p. 71). And more recently, in 1982, "Patriot activists in Idaho signed a charter for the creation of an Aryan community which would have its own militia" (Durham 1996:72). We agree with Durham that militias have a significant history behind them and seek to deepen this observation by exploring systematically the forerunner of today's U.S. militias.
While the militia movement has received a good deal of attention from news media and watchdog groups, aside from some notable exceptions (e.g., Barkun 1996, 1997; Bennett 1995; Castells 1997; Durham 1996; Freilich, Pichardo Almanzar, and Rivera 1999; Gallagher 1997; Haider-Markel and O'Brien 1997; Hamm 1997; Kaplan 1996; Kimmel and Ferber forthcoming; Mariani 1998; O'Brien and Haider-Markel 1998), it has not garnished that much attention from sociologists and other students of society. This neglect is unfortunate, but it should not come as a surprise considering that the social movement literature has tended to ignore right-wing social movements in general (McCarthy and Zald 1987; Pichardo 1997). However, if subjected to the systematic analysis that sociology affords, the U.S. militias promise to inform us about resistance movements as well as the production and maintenance of social order. Not charged by dictums like "if it bleeds it leads" and not entirely committed to activism in the here-and-now, but spec ially equipped with the tools of comparative analysis, sociologists can contribute to an informed appreciation of U.S. militias. At a minimum, sociological research can dispatch with gross misunderstandings. This paper aims to do just that.
We contend that the U.S. militia movement, far from being an unprecedented phenomenon, carries on a rich tradition established by a host of forerunners. We maintain that this observation has perhaps been neglected due to a failure to systematically define the U.S. militia movement. We move toward such a definition by employing five analytic categories -- ideology, motivation, mobilization, organization, and ritual -- in an effort to describe U.S. militias. Having outlined these categories and applied them to U.S. militias, we then compare and contrast the militias with right-wing forerunners such as the Silver Shirts, Ku Klux Klan, and Know Nothing Party along these same dimensions. This analysis allows us to demonstrate the inaccuracy of depictions that portray the contemporary militia movement as a unique phenomenon; we thus show how comparative studies of social movements can be of use in providing a more complex understanding of contemporary social problems. In order to advance comparative studies of soc ial movements, we conclude with several suggestions for further comparative investigations into the U.S. militia movement.
Defining the U.S. Militia Movement
In this section of the paper, we would like to construct a working definition of the U.S. militia movement.  We think that a useful definition of militias can be achieved by considering five related dimensions that we refer to as ideology, motivation, mobilization, organization, and ritual. Drawing on these five dimensions, we define U.S. militias as relatively decentralized organizations that employ or call for paramilitary rituals and use informal social networks, charismatic leaders, and various forms of "consciousness raising" to mobilize individuals who are motivated by economic, cultural, and technological factors to propagate an ideological message of intense hostility toward centralized government and multi-national corporations (see also Barkun 1997; Freilich, Pichardo Almanzar, and Rivera 1999; Hamilton 1996; O'Brien and Haider-Markel 1998; Snow 1999). This is a thick definition, and we aim to unpack it in the coming pages.
"Nobody has yet come up with a single adequate definition of ideology," writes Terry Eagleton (1991:1), and "[t]his is not because workers in the field are remarkable for their low intelligence, but because the term 'ideology' has a whole range of useful meanings, not all of which are compatible with each other" (p. 1). This is certainly not the place to dispatch with the many controversies that surround this most complex concept, but we do need to explain how we are using the term ideology in relation to the U.S. militias. For purposes of the present paper, we agree that "[i]t is possible, then, to think of ideological discourse as a complex network of empirical and normative elements, within which the nature and organization of the former is ultimately determined by the requirements of the latter" (Eagleton 1991:23). Gusfield (1981) recognizes a similar approach to ideology in his theory of public problems. In his book titled The Culture of Public Problems, Gusfield distinguishes between causal responsibili ty, which focuses on the questions "what is?" and "what ought to be?" and political responsibility, with its focus on questions like "what is to be done?" and "by whom?" In other words, we use ideology to mean ideas and beliefs that convey a grievance about the state of society. We will discuss a variety of ideological themes that are common to the U.S. militia movement. These themes, which are comprised of attributions of causal and political responsibility, outline the main problems and grievances articulated by militia members.
The ideology of the U.S. militia movement is centered on a number of rather unconventional beliefs concerning the interconnections among governmental authority, technology, modernity, and the media. These beliefs are closely related to a sense of alienation from contemporary American society and to a basic antipathy towards the modern world in general. Claimed by many to be most popular in communities wracked by economic dislocation, instability, and discontent, the militia movement is openly suspicious and quite contemptuous of the federal government, popular culture, corporate elites, the global economy, and technological advances (Abanes 1996; Doskoch 1995; Durbin 1995; Mariani 1998; Olson 1995).
If there is a main ideological message conveyed by the U.S. militias, it is one of pervasive mistrust, fear, and hatred of "the establishment"--usually defined as the U.S. federal government, the United Nations (U.N.), multi-national corporations, and the media. These sentiments of mistrust and fear often culminate in conspiracy theories, such as the infamous contention that the U.S. government, in concert with the U.N., is seeking to deprive citizens of their fundamental rights in an attempt to institute a one-world government (Bock 1995; Hawkins 1994). Such "fundamental" rights consist primarily, but not exclusively, of the ability to keep and bear arms. Other ideological themes fan out from this main concern with centralized authority and the threat it represents to individual rights; accordingly, we will discuss in turn militia views on centralized authority, gun rights, taxation, the liberal left's threat to the American way of life, anti-environmentalism, and jury nullification.
Mistrust of Centralized Authority and "The Establishment." Militias, proudly perpetuating the anti-federalist tradition in American politics, insist that the federal government is out to strip citizens of their most fundamental rights and to put an end to true democracy in America (SPLC 1997). "We must look at... the overriding important point," testified militia leader Robert Fletcher (United States Senate 1995:90) before a Senate subcommittee, "what is the concern of the actually several million American citizens that are involved with patriot groups, and whose concerns basically are an out-of-control government, an overly oppressive government, a government that utilizes a secret, shadow means" (p. 90). Norman Olson (United States Senate 1995) testified before the same Senate subcommittee: "The increasing amount of federal encroachment into our lives indicates the need for parental corrective action. In short, the federal government needs a good spanking to make it behave" (p. 95). Perhaps the Michigan Mil itia (1999) makes most explicit the threat to freedom posed by a strong federal government:
Today freedom in these United States is more or less a relative thing. Today's freedoms include only those actions Congress and the regulatory bureaucracies wish to allow the people.... Contrary to popular belief by many in Washington, the term "Federalism" does not mean that the federal government is to control everything. The states were intended to have most policing powers, the central government very few. Were the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution enforced with the vigor of the First, this situation would be rectified immediately. Instead, our country is infected by a quagmire of many thousands of often conflicting rules and regulations.... Today's federal government is quite obviously not the government intended by our founding fathers (pp. 4-6).
In the main, militia members tend to espouse a belief that the U.S. government has turned against the people, as evidenced by John Trochman's (United States Senate 1995) statement before Congress that "the high office of the Presidency has been turned into a position of dictatorial oppression" (p. 84) and Norman Olson's (United States Senate 1995) grim claim "that the Central Intelligence Agency has been in the business of killing people in the United States and around the world since 1946" (p. 100).
In addition to the anti-federalist plank, the militia movement's distrust of centralized authority is oftentimes expressed through various refrains on the threat posed by a developing New World Order. According to militia ideology, the U.S. government has taken an instrumental role in the process of instituting a New World Order that will eventually replace American sovereignty with a one-world government (Anderson 1996; Barkun 1997; SPLC 1997). Groups like the Michigan Militia contend that this highly centralized governing body will be headed by the U.N. and will be achieved through the concerted efforts of various international organizations and agreements such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Michigan Militia 1996a). "Indiana militia leader Linda Thompson," writes Jonathan Karl (1995:75), "predicts a United Nations invasion of the United States. She adds that the troops will be guided by secret symbols that have been placed on the back of highway signs throughout the country" (p. 75). Indeed, journalist David Neiwert (1999) describes a "border skirmish" that occurred in the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1994:
The paranoia reached its apex on Labor Day 1994, when some local Patriots in Northern Okanagon County [in Washington State] observed some suspicious behavior -- a large encampment of people near the Canadian border, all of them wearing new clothes, with all new equipment and out of state plates, all of them males with clean shaves. Could it be a United Nations strike force? Actually it was a Border Patrol exercise.... Someone driving along the Similkameen River spotted the encampment and rushed into town to tell friends about the activity. Soon, phone calls began flooding into Sheriff Jim Weed's office, claiming that U.N. troops had landed at the border and were sweeping southward, confiscating people's guns wherever they went. And, the callers said, the locals were planning to mount an armed resistance. In fact, a force of men was ready right then to drive northward to meet the invaders. The Sheriff urged the callers to sit tight, then quickly got on the phone with the regional Border Patrol director and war ned him that violence was imminent.... The Border Patrol promptly broke up the encampment.... The leader of the new Lake Chelan Citizen's Militia, however, was not exactly convinced that it was not an invasion. 'We have photographs,' said Bill Shoemaker, a Chelan area resident. Fortunately, the threat of militia action worked, in Shoemaker's view: 'They were getting ready to run a house to house search up there, which apparently they gave up because it was exposed before it happened' (p.267).
Although some variation exists within the militia movement as to how this usurpation of U.S. sovereignty will be accomplished, almost all militias believe that it will entail the deployment of foreign troops to American soil. These troops, which will undoubtedly be deployed in swarms of black helicopters (Barkun 1997; Keith 1994, 1997), are presumed by militia members to be a key component, both in establishing the New World Order and in abrogating citizens' rights (ADL 1994; AJC 1995; Anderson 1996; Bennett 1995; Bock 1995; Junas 1995; Karl 1995; Kelly 1995; Marks 1996; Tanner 1995).
Gun rights and confiscation. While U.S. militias fear centralized authority and the possibility of a New World Order, they also express overwhelming anxiety about the possibility of losing their highly cherished right to bear arms. One reason gun rights are so important to militia members is the belief that by disarming its populace, the U.S. government is ensuring that American citizens will be deprived of the means to combat the foreign onslaught which will be masterminded by the U.N. (Hawkins 1994; Stern 1996). As African-American militia leader James Johnson (United States Senate 1995) told Senate investigators: "For those who think that this is just primarily an angry white male movement, if our ancestors would have been armed they would not have been slaves. That is why people are getting armed" (p. 93). Robert Snow (1999), in his …
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Publication information: Article title: Toward Comparative Studies of the U.S. Militia Movement [*]. Contributors: Freilich, Joshua D. - Author, Pienik, Jeremy A. - Author, Howard, Gregory J. - Author. Journal title: International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Publication date: February-May 2001. Page number: 163. © 1999 E.J. Brill. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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