Is Uncle Sam Coddling the Kooks?

Mindful of the fatalities and public relations disasters resulting from the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges, federal authorities have adopted a low-key approach to the standoff with the so-called "Freemen".

By Jonathan Broder

Published April 6, 1996 8:54PM (EST)

Mindful of the fatalities and public relations disasters resulting from the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges, federal authorities have adopted a low-key approach to the standoff with the so-called "Freemen," a heavily armed right-wing group presently holed up on a farm compound in Jordan, Montana. For the past two years, the group has allegedly engaged in a bad-check scheme that has defrauded private businesses and public agencies of more than $1.8 million. The Freemen have also allegedly carried on a reign of terror, threatening the lives of local officials.

The Freemen are one of numerous groups that refuse to recognize government authority, instead hewing to their own "laws" and "common law courts" based on their interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution. Critics contend that law enforcement has been far too slow and reluctant to take on such groups. Others wonder whether the new softer approach merely appeases outlaws. In a recent cartoon from Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Constitution, entitled "Trying to Avoid Another Waco," an FBI agent barks through a bullhorn at the Montana Freemen compound: "You're surrounded. If it'll make you happy, we'll mow your lawn! OK, who wants pepperoni on their pizza?"

Why has the militia movement come so far? Are the new methods of handling them any better than the old? We spoke to three experts on the American militia movement and far right nativist groups.

Kenneth S. Stern is the American Jewish Committee's expert on hate groups. He is the author of the recently-released "The Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate" (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Dick J. Reavis is a Texas-based journalist and author of "The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation" (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

David H. Bennett is a professor of history in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and author of "The Party of Fear: The American Far Right Movement from Nativism to the Militia Movement" (Vintage, 1995).

The Freemen have been wanted for financial scams and threatening local officials for at least two years. Why did it take the FBI so long to move against them?

Reavis: They finally did something because the local posse, sick of all the harassment, were fixing to move in. But the Feds don't want anybody moving in on their turf. In light of Waco and Ruby Ridge, they were probably a lot more hesitant about moving in earlier.

Stern: I agree there was reluctance on their part to go in after Waco and Ruby Ridge. But the longer they waited, the worse it became. In fact, it became critical two years ago. It wasn't just all this bank fraud stuff. These folks, with their common law courts, started issuing liens against local officials. Then they started issuing bounties for the county attorney and the sheriff, and taking over local courthouses. The Garfield County Attorney was told they weren't going to bother to build a gallows after they tried and convicted him. They were just going to let him swing from the bridge.

Meanwhile, these folks were strengthening their position. In September, they all moved into their compound, consolidating their firepower and their feeling that this was their white supremacist fort. That made it very difficult for the Feds, who left the local community at bay, but allowed a situation to develop which is going to make a final resolution that much harder.

Bennett: I can't understand why the FBI didn't act sooner. It seems they were just reluctant to get involved given the embarrassments they've suffered in the past couple of years. But Garfield County wasn't the only place where these types of people were intimidating local officials. There were other cases, in Michigan and Montana. The FBI hasn't done much about those cases either.

Is this new, low-key FBI approach better?

Bennett: They're hoping for the opposite of what happened at Ruby Ridge and Waco. We'll just have to wait and see if it works, or if the Freemen simply run out of food.

Reavis: They're not behaving like the old FBI. They've gotten shrewder. They don't want to go back before Congress with their tail between their legs again. And they don't want to be an issue during election year. So, they're being more careful -- but the story isn't over yet.

Stern: I think it's better. Until now, the FBI has always been eager to get these situations over with and go home. It's an institutional thing. These guys are used to going to work, going home at night, hugging their kids. The military takes the opposite view. They feel, if we're not here, we'd be somewhere else. So, there's no hurry. Nobody wants to shoot anybody. Time is on our side. Now, the FBI is taking more of this military view, that time is on their side. These guys have the capacity to stay inside for a long time, but ultimately they have no place to go.

Despite the revulsion after the Oklahoma City bombings, are these anti-government groups and militias still growing?

Stern: We've seen a proliferation of these common law courts -- there are approximately 100 of them around the country now. That's partly because people have been coming to Jordan, Montana to learn how to do it while the Feds looked the other way. And these courts are part of the larger movement of white supremacists and others who no longer recognize federal or state authority.

The militias have to be happy with the Montana standoff because it gives them airtime on the media. They haven't had this much exposure since the Oklahoma City bombing. So this helps them to grow. And some of their leaders have enough media savvy to come across as reasonable. Because most of the media are uneducated about the militias and these other groups, they don't understand the codes in which they speak, so these groups end up getting a free ride.

Reavis: There's a whole zoo of far right political movements out there, and they're getting stronger all the time. They're growing in Dallas, I can guarantee you that. I've watched the Common Law court movement spring up in Dallas over the past year. We've got meetings every Tuesday night -- anywhere from 200 to a thousand of these guys come out to hear speakers. The Oklahoma City bombing didn't stop it. The militia movement said, "Oh, the government did that." And they would grow even without this Montana thing.
It's very much like the way the New Left developed in the 1960s, in lots of little nuclei, independent of each other, all pursuing issues that are a little bit different. The difference is, the New Left got better press than these guys.

Bennett: Organizations that monitor these movements say there are between 225 and 245 different militia, patriot and support groups in the U.S. The number of members is hard to know because many of them operate in secret.
The question is, why are they growing? I think the sentiments that encourage them draw strength from three main developments: The first is the end of the Cold War, which has allowed localism to flourish around the world, and in the U.S., particularly in the West. More people are asking why they need Washington at all anymore; they feel the land out there is theirs. Second is the backlash against the social upheavals of the 1960s and a nostalgia for the days when life appeared simpler and safer. And the third is the reaction to the current financial uncertainties and fears of the "new world order" and the global marketplace. In that sense, it's a debtors' rebellion.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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