Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Toward Comparative Studies of the U.S. Militia Movement [*]

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Toward Comparative Studies of the U.S. Militia Movement [*]

Article excerpt


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 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. …

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