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An expert with the Anti-Defamation League says the American militia groups have been hurt badly by the conviction of Timothy McVeigh.

Published June 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Timothy McVeigh may not have been an active member of an organized militia, but his anti-government beliefs closely echo their most cherished principles. According to his own writing, McVeigh was goaded into rage -- and action -- by the firestorm at Waco, itself a touchstone of the militia movement. While modern-day militias have been around in some form for many years, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City threw a broad media spotlight on their activities.

What does McVeigh's conviction mean for the militias? Does he become a martyr to their cause -- or a warning that they should rethink their violent rhetoric and vague plots to overthrow the government? Salon spoke with Gail Gans, who tracks U.S. militia groups for the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.

Is McVeigh now a martyr for anti-government groups?

No. Most of the groups, even the crazy, conspiracy-oriented ones which believe the government plotted all of this and have asserted that McVeigh was a patsy, have distanced themselves from McVeigh. I don't believe he is going to become a poster boy for the movement.

Why did they distance themselves from him?

Because of what happened to the folks in the building and the abhorrence shown by the American people. Even though they are as angry as McVeigh, they felt that blowing up a building filled with men, women and children undercut their arguments. Oh, they blustered around it some, accusing the government of having done it, but I don't think they want people to remember that the militia movement was tied to this act.

So does the militia's distaste for what McVeigh did in response to Waco and Ruby Ridge defuse their anger over those two incidents?

No, no, I'm not saying that at all. I think there's still a lot of anger. But I think their ability to respond with anger has been eroded. Not only by the McVeigh trial, but by arrests in other cases, by the fact that law enforcement has become much more aware of the militia movement, and capable of dealing with it, since the Murrah building was blown up. There's a lot more surveillance than there used to be. Law enforcement is now much more aware that there are extremists out there who still may be stockpiling weapons or fertilizer for bombs.

Does the guilty verdict against McVeigh further erode these movements?

I think the verdict may fragment the movement some more, because those people who still want to plan similar violent, extremists acts will be marginalized.

Even though they don't identify with McVeigh, you're saying today's verdict is a major blow to the militias?

It's one of a series of blows we've seen. When law enforcement was able to flush out the (Montana) Freemen and the Republic of Texas standoffs without any violence, and when the government was able to put together its case against McVeigh without taking years to get it in front of a jury -- each of these steps diminished the strength of the militia movement. You know, some people who are attracted to the militia movement are those who progressively lost their faith in their government. I think that this verdict will help restore it.

Overall, what do you think is the future of the militia movement?

I think it will begin to diminish over the next few years. I think there will continue to be internecine battles, as we saw with the Republic of Texas. Many states have passed anti-paramilitary training laws and are now working to pass anti-common law court laws to cut down on paper terrorism. Each of these things is going to diminish the movement's size and appeal.

But isn't there the possibility that under this salvo of laws, the militia movement may go more underground -- as organizations like Klanwatch and the Southern Poverty Law Center have suggested -- and therefore become more dangerous?

That's one of the things that we've become very concerned about -- that some of the extremists are trying to build an underground movement. That's a danger, and we'd be crazy to close our eyes to it. But overall, I think it's going to be harder for the militias, even to go underground.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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