Thomas, Evan, Conant, Eve, Newsweek
Byline: Evan Thomas and Eve Conant
Antigovernment extremists are on the rise--and on the march.
Stewart Rhodes does not seem like an extremist. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former U.S. Army paratrooper and congressional staffer. He is not at all secretive. In February he was sitting at a table at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at a fancy downtown hotel in Washington, handing out fliers and selling T shirts for his organization, the Oath Keepers. Rhodes says he has 6,000 dues-paying members, active and retired police and military, who promise never to take orders to disarm U.S. citizens or herd them into concentration camps. Rhodes told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "We're not a militia." Oath Keepers do not run around the woods on the weekend shooting weapons or threatening the violent overthrow of the government. Their oath is to uphold the Constitution and defend the American people from dictatorship.
But by conjuring up the specter of revolution--or counterrevolution--is Rhodes adding to the threat of real violence? Oath Keepers are "a particularly worrisome example of the 'patriot' revival," according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate speech and extremist organizations. "Patriot" groups--described by the SPLC as outfits "that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose 'one-world government' on liberty-loving Americans"--are "roaring back" after years out of the limelight, according to Potok. Notorious in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the patriot groups seemed to fade away under the shadow of 9/11, but hard times and the nation's first African-American president seem to have brought about a revival--from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 (127 of them militias) in 2009, according to the SPLC.
It is easy to exaggerate the numbers of these groups or the threat they pose, especially if you are an organization, like the SPLC, dedicated to exposing such things. Extremist outfits have come and gone over the years. With their preening and prancing about in Nazi garb or white robes, skinheads and white supremacists are often more about showing off than committing acts of violence. Law-enforcement experts worry more about "lone wolves," disturbed loners with military training, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, than they do about loudmouth militia groups. But the feds and local authorities will be watching closely on April 19, when the Oath Keepers mark their first anniversary and join a Second Amendment March on Washington to celebrate the right to bear arms. The Oath Keepers say they are commemorating the first shots of the Revolutionary War fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, but April 19 is also the anniversary of the end of the FBI siege at Waco, Texas, in 1993, as well as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
This is a season, or perhaps an era, when politics seem more intense than usual, and the domestic extremist threat seems more real. Partisan disputes are rarely pretty, but lately they have taken a particularly ugly, menacing turn. Last week the FBI arrested individuals for making death threats against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington for their votes on health-care reform. A series of expletive-strewn voice-mail messages left for Senator Murray were particularly creepy: "You're gonna have a target on your back for the rest of your life," the caller warned. "How long do you think you can hide?"
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said last week that serious threats to members of Congress had nearly tripled, from 15 in the last three months of 2009 to 42 in the first quarter of 2010, with most of them coming in March during the height of the health-care debate. Some of the calls and e-mails were "very vicious" and included threats to members' homes and families. "You had people saying, 'I'm going to get your kids, I'm going to get your wife,'a" says Gainer. …