The search for those who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City has taken us into a nether world of militants who believe that the federal government is all one plot against their liberty. Theirs is a world haunted by “black helicopters,” harbingers of a UN takeover. We learn from them that federal officers belong to ZOG, the Zionist Occupation Government. We are told that the government building in Oklahoma was destroyed by the government itself, in order to get rid of Secret Service agents who knew too much about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or that adopting the metric system would be a step on the path to slavery.

We are reminded that talk-show host Alan Berg was murdered in 1984 by a disciple of William L. Pierce, whose 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries, prescribed such acts of terror as the way to begin “taking back” government from oppressive federal usurpers. The novel was favorite reading for Timothy McVeigh, now charged with the bombing in Oklahoma City. In fact, that bombing seems modeled on one in The Turner Diaries, where the FBI headquarters is destroyed by a fertilizer bomb at 9:15 AM, when the building is full.1

It is hard to know how seriously the fantasts should be taken. Paranoia about the paranoids is itself dangerous. Extreme reaction to extremists led to shootouts between federal agents and religious gun collectors—at Ruby Ridge. Idaho, in 1992, and at Waco, Texas, in 1993—that have themselves become the cause of militant fears and mobilization.

Even the number of armed extremists is elusive. A swirl of organizations can be named. But some may be little more than letterheads. A sober researcher’s investigation of religious extremists could turn up hard evidence of only 520 “Christian patriots” in Idaho—hardly a mass movement.2 Besides, how new is this phenomenon? We have had conspiracy-mongers all through our history, enough to make Richard Hofstadter call paranoia a national style. At one time or another, Masons, Catholics, Jews, railroads, banks were seen as the underminers of American freedom. We have also had private armies organized in our midst—the Klan, Cosa Nostra, the Molly Maguires, Pinkerton forces in their strikebreaking days.

But there is something new about the groups coming to light after Oklahoma City. However those groups differ among themselves—some espousing violence, some not; some religious, some secular; some millennial, some pragmatic—they all agree in their intense fear of the government, and they have framed a complex analysis of the machinery of governmental repression, one that even non-extremists share on this point or that. In fact, it is hard to trace the exact line where extremism spills over into “mainstream” concerns about liberty.

The suspicion that government has become the enemy of freedom, not its protector, crosses ideological lines. Liberals point to FBI plots against American citizens like Dr. King, to CIA experiments with LSD on American citizens, to the Defense Department’s use of Americans as guinea pigs in nuclear testing. The right sees assaults on liberty from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Department of the Interior, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many people resent the fact that government has become a dictator of the terms of societal conduct—in welfare programs, in affirmative action and other preferential attitudes toward citizens’ rights, in schools that seem to have a “multicultural” or anti-religious agenda, in confiscatory taxation, in the keeping of elaborate files on citizens’ activities, in various agencies’ surveillance techniques and bribing of informers.

After all, Ronald Reagan spent many years, before and during his own time in government, telling appreciative audiences that government is itself the problem, that it can do nothing right (except fight the Soviet Union—and now even that is gone), that it must be taken “off our backs.” Newt Gingrich reacted angrily when it was suggested that his own attacks on government might have something to do with the bombing of government buildings, and he is right when he says that no enunciator of a position can be blamed for every degree of zaniness conceived beyond that position’s actual borders. Yet much of the appeal of the new extremists comes from the fact that they take a generalized discontent and spell out, in hard terms, what the consequences of such vague feelings could be. Some recruits feel that everybody is talking about governmental excess but few are doing anything about it. The new extremism is less a “style” of paranoia than a coherent, even rigorous, statement of what follows from recognition of the government as one’s enemy. Using sophisticated communication techniques—shortwave radio, videotaped seminars, the Internet, e-mail, and fax machines—they have made an internally consistent case for the illegitimacy of federal acts.

1) Taxation. No one likes to pay taxes. Politicians who raise taxes take risks. Those who cut them are guaranteed certain (at least initial) advantages. To rail against taxes is human. But the new militants go farther. I first became aware of this when someone sidled up to me after a talk I had given on the Constitution to ask, “When are you going to go after the truly unconstitutional basis of governmental action, the income tax?” This alerted me to a movement that exceeds the kind of protest I was familiar with. A few individuals or groups have refused to pay income tax (or part of it) as a protest against a specific government policy—nuclear arms, or abortion, or the Vietnam War. But these new militants call the whole tax system unconstitutional, on several grounds—that the 1040 form violates the Fifth Amendment, forcing people to bear witness against themselves; that states’ rights are violated by direct federal seizures; that employer reports on income make citizens unwilling witnesses against their fellows; that this is a form of “accusatorial” rather than “adversary” legal proceeding; and that the bounties paid to informers create a system of spying that turns Americans against each other, making them pawns in the government’s game. All the other excesses of government would be impossible if it were not able to coerce from citizens large sums that belong to them. In that sense, they argue, the Sixteenth Amendment was the great subverter of limited (constitutional) government. Fighting that amendment is the best way to restore an imperiled (if not lost) freedom.


There is something appealing about their position. Others are sneaky “tax evaders,” doing something they treat as wrong even while they do it. “Tax resisters” can be open and principled about doing what most other people would like to do. That is why tax resisters who have defied the government, even to the point of gunfights, are almost folk heroes. The hillbilly shotgun for “revenooers” has been updated with sophisticated legal arguments and how-to instruction kits. Tax resisters rely on books like George Hansen’s To Harass Our People: The IRS and Government Abuse of Power (Positive Publications, 1984). When Hansen, a congressman from Idaho, was convicted of ethics violations, the movement took this as proof that the government will do anything to suppress the truth about the illegal IRS.3

2) The jury system. Jurors at the Waco trial of David Koresh’s followers received letters from the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) instructing them not to let the judge instruct them, since they had the power to determine points of law as well as points of evidence. The same kit was sent to jurors in other trials, including that of Randall Weaver, who defied a court summons at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and who was not convicted of the murder charge against him, for shooting a man, before his wife was killed by federal agents. 4

FIJA is one of the offshoots of a more extensive critique of the whole petit jury system. The militants say that only grand juries are true citizens’ tribunals, where citizens can ask their own questions and dismiss indictments they disagree with. They approve of things like a Dallas grand jury’s dismissal of charges against security guards who beat up four thieves instead of turning them over to the law. If this is vigilantism, the militants approve of it.5

Dissatisfaction with courts and the use of juries is widespread. The legal system seems like a game that is rigged in the criminal’s favor while penalizing people who act from legitimate grievance. The trial of O.J. Simpson has brought out many of the objections people have to court procedures in general. The critique of the “extremists” is not clearly separable from such grumbling, as one can see from the passage of the FIJA program—for juries to disregard judges’ instructions on the law—through one house of two state legislatures (Oklahoma and Arizona) and recommendation from legislative committees of two others (Utah and Montana).

3) Regulations. Gingrich Republicans resent government regulation of business, the environment, safety. Others feel their own autonomy impinged on by seatbelts, airbags, motor-cycle helmets—all the ways government has of telling people how to live. They feel manipulated, spied on, reduced to numbers by the regulatory implications of the Social Security number, the census inquiry, the draft number. They see the possible introduction of the metric system as submission to international instruments of control. They resent the fact that government certification is needed for one’s birth, marriage, death. Some refuse to cooperate in one area, or a few. My late friend Frank Meyer refused to respond to the truancy officer who wanted his children to have a certified education (he taught them himself). My late friend William J. Rick-enbacker refused, despite legal threats mounted against him, to fill out census forms, arguing that they are an invasion of privacy.


Comes now the Barristers’ Inn School of Common Law to say that citizens are not required to number, brand, and submit themselves to a depersonalizing government. They can refuse to get numbered by Social Security. They can go without drivers’ licenses, marriage certificates, divorce decrees. They can avoid the government’s certificates of credit (money) by barter and by buying gold or silver for exchange purposes. They can keep silent when challenged by officials to explain such noncompliance. The head of Barristers’ Inn, George Gordon, is a clever exponent of his views, and consistent. His first course of videotapes costs $2,400, but anyone can copy and distribute (even resell) them, since he refuses to copyright them with the government. Even so, he has sold over three hundred copies himself.6 It is easy to see why people with these views seek residence in Idaho or places in Montana, where their noncompliance is less visible; but the Nichols brothers, James and Terry, who have been questioned for their ties with the man accused of the Oklahoma City bombing, live in Michigan; and they are resisters who follow the teachings of Karl Granse, who shows people how to “disappear themselves” from the government tracking systems.7 In The Turner Diaries, the FBI building is destroyed because it has a computerized “internal passport” system for keeping track of every citizen. The Unabomber, with his fervor against technology, takes one step further the resentment of Sixties students against being “folded, spindled, and mutilated” while their computer cards were not.

4) Police power. In the wake of the Civil War, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to prevent President Grant from using federal troops to police citizens in Southern elections. “Posse Comitatus,” the “county force,” refers to the right of citizens to be policed by civilians. The modern “Posse Comitatus” movement takes the term “county force” literally, arguing that the federal government has no police power at the state level. Yet the federal assistance funds to local law enforcement (LEAL), the FBI instruction of the police, the tactics and equipment supplied to SWAT teams, along with other parts of the “war on crime,” have tainted power at the state level with federal entanglement. Only a sheriff who calls up a citizens’ “posse” can be a citizens’ enforcement agent (as only grand juries can be citizen trials).

This doctrine was first espoused by some of the more secretive resisters of the government, like Gordon Kahl, who died in a shootout with federal authorities in 1983.8 But now it has become an open doctrine, espoused for instance by Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who introduced a law into the House to disarm federal officials entering a state unless they have been authorized by local authority. The discrediting of police by the Rodney King beating, the allegations of police misconduct in the Simpson prosecution, the corruption of drug enforcers in Florida, the graft of many police forces, the hedonistic revelry of New York’s cops in Washington—all these scandals lend plausibility to the claim that police power is out of control and that citizen posses should restore order in the new West, just as (in the minds of the militants) they once did in the old West.

5) Schools. Few can be happy with the state of public education these days. Poor teaching is almost the least of its troubles. Drugs, violence, and controversy plague what should be havens for children. The conspiratorialists see this as a result deliberately schemed at by the Department of Education (which should be abolished), evil teachers’ unions (NEA and AFT), and “multiculturalist” educators who attack Christianity. Combined efforts to brainwash children are meant to control the future. The extremists find witch cults in the observation of Halloween, and attacks on the Bible in the teaching of evolution. But a far wider group of people opposes the distribution of condoms in school, the use of textbooks tolerant of homosexuality, the offering of history courses that criticize America. The Christian Right has for a long time responded to this as Frank Meyer did—with home schooling. For those unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices entailed, a voucher system is demanded. The moderates defend this on grounds of variety (which they criticize when it is various cultures that are studied), or competition, or experiment. But a growing number feels that the public schools as currently operated are a positive evil to be crushed. Abolishing the Department of Education and breaking teachers’ unions are steps toward that goal.


6) Family. The religious right opposes welfare to incomplete families as perpetuating the condition of fatherless children. The correlative of this is the autonomy of complete families, in which Biblical standards like corporal punishment are upheld. Snoops from child-welfare agencies are resisted, as is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s talk of children’s rights. Parents should control children. Governmental attempts to provide standards for children undermine parental and spousal rights. The defenders of David Koresh say that the FBI’s charges of child abuse at the Waco compound are just the most dramatic instance of the way government tries to stop parents from disciplining their own children instead of surrendering them to permissive bureaucrats.

7) Religion. The government has removed religion from school, and from American life. The prestigious national media are considered part of a conspiracy to make secularism the very “establishment” forbidden by the Constitution. Secularism, we are told, “takes a stand on religion” by denying its validity, and the First Amendment forbids establishing any religious stance. The government also interferes in the religious activities of people who believe in odd practices, whether using peyote, handling snakes, or practicing Biblical polygamy. David Koresh’s “religious freedom” has been defended even in mainstream publications: if he “married” women, some of them underage, it was with their parents’ consent (families should determine these matters), and with Biblical precedent.9 His sympathizers feel that it is absurd for a government that encourages out-of-wedlock childbirth by underage and promiscuous men and women (through its welfare policies, its forms of sex education, its permissiveness) to menace a man like Koresh who was staying with his wives (unlike elusive ghetto fathers), caring for his children, providing a stable home.

8) Citizen militias. Just as the militants want citizen trials, citizen police, and citizen schools, they call for citizen militias as traditional bastions against governmental oppression. The government’s own view is that America has “a well-regulated militia” in the state units of the National Guard. But the militants do not think the Guard qualifies. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, puts it this way:

James Madison…downplayed the threat of seizure of authority by a federal army, because such a move would be opposed by “a militia amounting to half a million men.”

In 1790, since the population of the United States was about 800,000, Madison wasn’t referring to state reserves. By militia, Madison obviously meant every able-bodied man capable of bearing arms. 10

For the NRA, as for Posse Comitatus groups, the National Guard is not a citizen army. It is the kind of standing army the Second Amendment was intended to oppose. The only real defense of freedom, now as in the days of the Minutemen, is the musket in the closet, producible when government becomes oppressive. Foremost among those who protect citizens’ lives with force are the bombers of abortion clinics and the “executioners” of doctors who act in disregard of religious teaching and are protected by a secular government.

9) Constitutionalism. The modern militia movement, far from thinking itself outside the law, believes it is the critical force making for a restoration of the Constitution. It alone can inhibit predatory government agencies from ranging abroad, invading homes, confiscating property, punishing “unregulated” logging or fishing or mining. The modern extremist movement is not aimed at one or other excess in present governmental activity but at the whole subversion of the Constitution by way of the income tax, the secular establishment, the violation of privacy for the individual and the family and the home. Much of the militants’ respect for the Constitution was learned from the Mormons. Latter-day Saints have had strong ties with extremist groups since the days when LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson praised the John Birch Society as “the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping Socialism and Godless Communism.”11 Benson’s son is now an official of the Freemen’s Institute, a center for extremist doctrine.

The Mormons believe the Constitution is divinely inspired, even though the actual operation of government has always departed from the pure standards of the Constitution. In fact, only Mormons hold the Constitution in high enough esteem, and they will be the ones to rescue it when the government has become terminally corrupt. As Brigham Young himself said: “When the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the ‘Mormon’ elders to save it from utter destruction.”12 That is exactly what many Christian patriots feel about their own militia activity, or that of their friends or allies. They are the “saving remnant” in a time of general oppression. Of course, the militants’ Constitution looks different from the one the rest of us are familiar with. The Sixteenth Amendment, imposing the income tax, is not part of it. Neither, for many, are the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments, allegedly ratified when the South was not able to provide a free vote in the requisite majority of the states. For some of the militants, the “real” Constitution is only the first document and its original ten amendments. All later amendments were originated in Congress at a period when the government had become degenerate.

10) Corruption. H. Ross Perot touched a responsive chord in Americans when he said that government could not be fixed until professional politicians and lobbyists are turned out and “real” Americans, who want to fix it, get their hands back on the machinery. The term-limit movement, a discontent with the two-party system, the sense of alienation from one’s own representatives show how widely shared is such disaffection. But the militants, again, take this mood with greater seriousness than others do. If government is literally unresponsive to the people, then it is not enough for us to sit and sigh about it. Such a government does not even exist. If it is not responsible to us, to whom is it responsible? Some say to Satan or to international bankers or—which is much the same thing—to the New World Order. UN personnel and Russian tanks fill a vacuum. The American government, divorced from the American people, is not even American. This is a serious accusation. It resembles the use of the “corruption” argument in eighteenth-century England, when it was said that a corrupt ministry had severed the proper link between King and Parliament, invalidating the entire constitutional monarchy. Corruption of such a sort, in such a place, points not to a degenerate or imperfect government but to a nongovernment.

11) Guns. I have saved till last the part of the militants’ argument that is best known and most plausible to people who have little knowledge of or sympathy with the rest of the militants’ case. Even those who would reject the patriots’ arguments over the Sixteenth Amendment, or the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, are respectful of the claim that the Second Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to own and use firearms. Ordinary citizens may think the NRA puts too much emphasis on the constitutional right to bear arms; but they suppose that such a right exists. They just wonder why the NRA speaks as if this were the most important right in the document.

What we have to recognize is that, for many with the militia mentality, the argument for “gun rights” involves all the preceding ten points I have listed here. The needs for a citizen police (the posse), a citizen judiciary (the grand juries), a sacred home where the citizen can control children’s education and discipline and religious instruction will all be nugatory without the ability of the citizen to protect those rights by force. For them, the Second Amendment is not mainly about hunting, target-shooting for medals, or serving in the National Guard—it is about preventing the descent of the government’s “jackbooted thugs” upon their homes.

They believe our government was set up to oppose government—which puts officials in continual opposition to an armed citizenry. This explains why any infringement of the right to have any firearm, or even the most powerful (“cop-killing”) bullets, is adamantly opposed by defenders of gun rights. One can have too many weapons—or weapons too unwieldy, too large, too powerful—for the effective killing of rabbits or housebreakers. But one can never have enough firepower against a federal government that, after all, has nuclear weapons.

In fact, that disparity may make the frantic addition of assault weapons to private arsenals look quixotic. If Russian tanks do fulfill militia fantasies and come rumbling onto the family farm, what use will an AK-7 be? Mr. LaPierre answers:

The claim that an armed populace cannot successfully resist assault stems from an unproved theory.

The twentieth century provides no example of a determined populace with access to small arms having been defeated by a modern army. The Russians lost in Afghanistan, the United States lost in Vietnam, and the French lost in Indo-China. In each case, it was the poorly armed populace that beat the “modern” army. In China, Cuba, and Nicaragua, the established leaders Chiang Kai-Shek, Battista, and Somoza lost. Modern nations like Algeria, Angola, Ireland, Israel, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe only exist because guerrilla warfare can triumph over modern armies.13

Most of the guerrillas LaPierre refers to had tanks, missiles, the organization of “modern armies,” and the help of outside governments. But the accuracy of his history is not what matters here. His choice of examples is what matters. He frankly sees the Second Amendment as providing for guerrilla war against the government. As he puts it, the Second Amendment was meant to provide weapons for “overthrowing tyrants.” Though he said, after the Oklahoma City bombing, that the NRA does not support violence, he has also said that the citizenry is itself a militia; that the National Guard (like, a fortiori, the federal military) is a standing army; and that freedom depends on the former overthrowing, if it cannot check and control, the latter. By most people’s definition, that is violence.

His choice of the Vietnam analogy puts him in accord with the militia movements, where frustration at the “loss” in Vietnam has been accompanied by a desire to learn the lesson of Vietnam in domestic opposition to the government. James William Gibson, in Warrior Dreams, traces the way militias have “brought the war home” in ways never envisaged by the first users of that leftist slogan.14 The groups Gibson studied believe that the national government sold out the military it sent to Vietnam—“tying one hand behind their backs,” as Reagan liked to say; refusing to do what was necessary to win; abandoning MIAs. Sylvester Stallone’s famous line in Rambo—“Do we get to win this time?”—was used in the movie to motivate raiders after lost MIAs. But in John Milius’s Red Dawn (1984), a movie popular on the militia circuit, Americans avenge the defeat by guerrillas abroad by becoming guerrillas at home. Lecturers on the “survivalist” circuit teach guerrilla tactics. John Kennedy’s belief in “counterinsurgency” has migrated to the militants, who are ready to use it against jack-booted troops of their own nation.


Such fantasies may seem merely aberrant; but in fact they have a certain logic when taken in the complex of ideas disseminated among the militants. If the National Guard is, as Wayne LaPierre tells us, a standing army, that thing abominated by the Founding Fathers, what is the huge federal military establishment, with bases around the world, missiles and nuclear devices, air and naval fleets? These are the instruments of the New World Order described by Pat Robertson. 15 They are international not only in scope but in mentality, huge because financed by the worldwide financial system, integrated with a UN scoffing at national sovereignty. They are the “standing army” par excellence, the apocalyptic tyranny. That is why, at the climax of The Turner Diaries, the hero blows up the Pentagon.

Fear of the Pentagon, fairly new on the right, is an old companion on the left. A shrewd satire, Report From Iron Mountain, was published in 1967 to mock the delusions of “wargamers” (Hermann Kahn, Bernard Brodie, et al.). It purported to be a secret plan commissioned by the government to use the methods of “nuclear theology” to plan for peace instead of war. The report discovered that peace would be unsustainable, since war had become the central organizing principle of society. A peace would have to be a war called peace (a nice nod to Orwell), with substitute peacetime activities replicating those of war. One such activity would be an international police force on a permanent basis.16 The way to drain off economically superfluous and dissident members of the lower classes, in the absence of the military draft (which performed that function), would be a tactfully managed reintroduction of slavery.17 The “report” begins soberly, quoting the positions of Robert McNamara, but then it goes mad slowly, under an ingenious screen of social-scientific jargon.

Report From Iron Mountain has now become a part of the conspiratorialists’ canon, distributed at first by the Liberty Lobby and Noontide Press, then presented in instructional videotapes.18 The militants believe that it is a genuine document, proof that government think tanks have been plotting for national slavery under an international World Order. When the author, Leonard Lewin, said it was all a spoof, they answered that he was just continuing the “disinformation” recommended inside the report. By legal action, Lewin got back a thousand of the illegally printed copies of his book and put them out of circulation. But people continue to copy and circulate it—if it is a government document, it is public property; and if it is copyrighted, that just shows how the government uses its illegal power to suppress information.

There is still another turn of this screw. The Lewin satire was pointing to a reality, the same one President Eisenhower singled out in his farewell address—the military-industrial complex. If the founders were distrustful of standing armies, they were even more critical of permanent war. President Washington’s neutrality policy was based on the difficulty of forming and maintaining a republican ethos during the suspension of personal liberties that every war entails.

Between the tremendous mobilization of the Second World War and the deliberately maintained tensions of the cold war, we have existed in a state of mobilization for the last half-century—a mobilization of economic resources, legal rationales, social planning, and cultural pressures. Michael Sherry, in his impressive and very important new book, has assembled the evidence that almost all our social action in that period was affected, at one level or another, by the culture of war.19 Our education policies, our racial policy, our highway systems, our communications regulation were justified by the need to thwart an enemy of almost superhuman dimensions.

When President Truman wanted to aid one faction in the postwar struggle for Greece, Senator Vandenburg told him he would have to “scare the hell out of the American people” to get the money and authority to act—and we have been scared ever since. The standard way for an administration to get authority for its programs has been to plead the necessities of national security. President Truman instituted harsher security procedures and penalties than had existed in World War II. He used classification of documents, security clearances, the attorney general’s list, the FBI’s domestic role, the CIA’s international authority (including a defiance of the Constitution’s requirement that public moneys be publicly accounted for) to impose a regime presided over by a “Commander in Chief” of civilians as well as the military.

For decades, the American people were spied on and encouraged to suspect others while submitting to suspicion themselves. Industry “blacklists” outran governmental scrutiny. War-level secrecy reduced government accountability and citizen participation in government. We had to keep up the war in Vietnam because our citizens did not have the information that could be shared only among the “cleared.” The Pentagon Papers should have been suppressed because we ought not to know such things.

The end of the cold war did not bring an end to this attitude. During congressional debate over the Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker was asked why a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was opposed to the invasion. He answered that General Crowe was no longer cleared to read the latest cables. If someone of Crowe’s general knowledge and military experience could not have an informed opinion, what right have the rest of us mere private citizens to question our superiors’ determination to send us into the risks of combat?

This aggrandizement of war-making authority by the government was accompanied by a compensatory denigration of its other activities. When President Reagan wanted to get the government off our backs, it was never the secret government he had in mind, the security agencies, the defense costs, the military permeation of university research, the huge standing armies we maintain around the world. It was the triplicate forms made out for OSHA. Government was a burden in every respect but war, and its officials almost apologized for what they did in areas like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, while bristling at the very idea that presidential war-making powers could be limited.

The sheer size of government was a product not of the New Deal but of the warfare state. Sherry shows how expansion of regulation, resisted and checked time after time in the 1930s, swept through without a hitch in the 1940s. The New Deal did not create “big government.” Doctor “Win-the-War” did.

But now we face the problem Leonard Lewin presented satirically. With the end of the cold war, the justification for government activism has been taken away. If the government is only good for fighting Communists, and it no longer fights Communists, then what good is it? No convincing answer comes from above—which lends the answer from the depths its new plausibility: It is good for nothing, and citizens must take their own lives in hand again, vindicating their own liberties. Right or wrong, the armed patriots at least have arguments they can believe in whole-heartedly. They take the mood of post-cold war drift, of Perotista resentment, of disillusionment and economic shakiness, of fin de siècle fear, and change it into a plan for doing something about one’s gripes.

That is what is new about the current paranoia. There are elements of the old extremism in the mix—anti-Semitism, skinhead fantasies about Hitler, crude xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, catastrophic millennialism. But there is also an argued case for “constitutional anti-governmentalism” that, in certain areas, connects with the wider public’s own hunches or blind assertions. The militias and their supporters are not the most central social symptom of our time, but they are among the more dramatic symptoms of a general crisis of legitimacy. The authority of government can no longer be assumed. It has to be justified from the ground up.

Two focal points of concern prove this—the shootouts at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Most observers now agree that the government handled those two sieges badly, and that it tried to minimize its culpability. This is sad but not surprising. Armed action against armed resisters is usually not handled in a cool way in our society, precisely because we do not have a national team of ruthlessly professional “hit men.” National Guard units shoot down students at Kent State. Philadelphia police kill holed-up MOVE activists. Chicago police shoot Black Panthers. Guards kill rioters in prisons. The closer these things come to war, the more they move through the famous “fog of war,” the “under-water” quality Clausewitz ascribed to the nonrational conduct of men under fire.

Such incidents prove there has been a breakdown of the way we are supposed to deal with dissent. The civics-book view is that a person accused of breaking the law should answer a summons to test that accusation in court. But what do you do if the person refuses the summons, rejects the summoner’s jurisdiction, and denies the court’s legitimacy? Randall Weaver, the man besieged at Ruby Ridge, had announced his refusal to comply with the court procedure from which he was out on bail, saying he would give up his life before answering another court summons.20 What can authorities do in such a case?

One course is to ignore the defiant person. That is often done—from lack of resources to process all scofflaws, if nothing else. Or the crime is treated as trivial, or as part of an informal arrangement (e.g., with dissident Mormons in Utah who still practice polygamy). But if the authorities do say they must enforce laws they did not make, the best place to test their conduct, as well as the original complaint, is in the court. That did not happen at Ruby Ridge. Shots on both sides killed people on both sides. The same thing, on a larger scale, occurred at the religious compound in Waco.

It is easy to see why these two events have become such heavily charged symbols for the Christian patriots. Their very sites are the object of pilgrimage. What occurred there is seen as a resounding confirmation of every point in the believers’ creed. People protecting their own families on their own property were killed by governmental agencies, including the hated anti-gun agency (BATF), for trying to defend their religious beliefs with constitutionally protected firearms. Freedom lovers confronted the jackbooted thugs, a pledge of what the rest of us can do, more successfully, if we rally to the cause of individual freedoms. This is precisely the use Wayne LaPierre makes of the two incidents in his book.

Many people who are not militants or conspiratorialists can agree with parts of this analysis. Libertarians wonder why people who keep to themselves should be bothered. Defenders of religious freedom suspect that the besieged were “demonized” for their minority beliefs. People who resent the intrusion of government agencies into their own lives think the BATF, IRS, and FBI were acting beyond their legitimate mandate (if any). Defenders of gun ownership think that the charges against them, of possessing illegal firearms, were themselves illegal. Dick J. Reavis writes:

If the findings of Professors Malcolm and other Constitutional scholars are trustworthy [and he has just agreed that they are], the laws that the ATF sought to enforce at Mt. Carmel [Waco] on February 28 were unconstitutional.21

Critics of the media can and do say, with some justification, that reports about the strangeness of the resisters inflamed the public and sensationalized the confrontations.

There are calls, from many sides, for further investigations, which will no doubt occur. Hard-core believers want to turn up evidence that the New World Order conspiracy was master-minding the government attacks on Ruby Ridge and Waco. Others will weigh with greater precision the degrees of official ineptitude and mendacity. Academic students of religion say that we must take seriously the religious beliefs of fundamentalists—a view that is certainly true, especially as the millennium approaches. But James Tabor, who advised the authorities on the way to lure David Koresh out of his home, and Eugene Gallagher, the authors of Why Waco?, have a long way to go before they can out-Bible a Koresh.22 The relevant beliefs, for the broader range of resisters, are those that make up the “constitutional anti-governmentalism” they share, not the private revelations of a Koresh.

The details of the two sieges will be endlessly debated; but their greatest social significance lies in the way they served to unite extremists and moderates, the left and the right, on several points of the militants’ creed.

It is no longer so “extreme” to believe that our government is the greatest enemy to freedom. We see this in a new hatred of government agents (who fear for their lives in western states). Or in the unprecedented vilification of the head of our government. President Roosevelt was hated by the right, and President Nixon by the left. Satirical ridicule (like the play MacBird) was heaped on Lyndon Johnson. But serious charges of murder, brought by supposedly respectable people like Jerry Falwell, are something new in our polity. The fierce contempt for Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the Attorney General (called “Butch” Reno on bumper stickers), for “Condom Queen” Joycelyn Elders, reflects misogyny rebelling against feminism’s gains; but it is also a sign that the office of the presidency itself may now incur a contempt as routine as the respect it once commanded. The heaping of filth on the personnel and symbols of government has a delegitimating effect in itself; and the assault is joined to the disillusion, anger, and disorientation that have marked recent electoral behavior. Where the heated deny legitimacy and the cool are doubtful of it, a crisis is in the making.

This Issue

August 10, 1995