Right-Wing Militants Mix Political Fantasy, Violence

SEEDS of hatred that erupted with terrible violence in Oklahoma last week have been sown by reactionary groups across the United States.

In Montana, for example, March began with a cold wind whipping snow, and insurrection, across the Northern Plains.

On Thursday, March 2, William Stanton became the first Montanan ever convicted of terrorism. District Judge Kenneth Wilson sentenced the Garfield County rancher to 10 years in jail (the maximum penalty) for using violence for political ends.

The following day, four armed men were arrested when they entered the Musselshell County Courthouse and tried to file papers protesting the seizure of Rodney Skurdal's house by the Internal Revenue Service.

Messrs. Stanton and Skurdal belong to a secessionist group, the ''Garfield County Freemen,'' whose theories of government include their right not to obey the current one. Skurdal is hiding from a warrant for criminal syndicalism, the terrorism statute.

Garfield County is about the size of Connecticut, with a mere 600 households and per capita income of $11,000. Only 14 percent of county residents subscribe to the newspaper. Isolated geographically and economically, it is fertile ground for paranoia.

Three other men, waiting in cars outside the Musselshell Courthouse, were also arrested. They had semiautomatic handguns, six assault rifles, video gear, and $80,000 in cash, gold, and silver in their cars.

Over the past year or so, ''freemen'' have been filing papers in Montana courts under an idiosyncratic sort of medieval common-law system. They demand millions of dollars in gold from the government and proclaim their own authority as law officers of an independent nation. Their concept of sovereignty springs, apparently, from the observation that small societies can be self-governing, and that the Supreme Being alone reigns.

As with the primitive societies studied by anthropologists, the tight-knit right-wing militants often attach mystical significance to the anniversaries of certain events: The FBI siege of isolationist Randy Weaver's fortified homestead in Idaho on an April day two years ago, for instance. That has become a rallying point among militant groups here.

One of the men who stormed the Musselshell County Courthouse is John Trochmann, leader of the self-styled Militia of Montana, which advocates broad application of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.

Before the courthouse incident, Mr. Trochmann and others attended a terrorism seminar at Skurdal's home. They planned to kidnap, try, and hang a judge, and videotape the proceedings, according to Musselshell County Attorney John Bohlman. Mr. Bohlman also commented that such schemes reminded him of ''Nazi brownshirts,'' who killed German authorities in order to take power.

Meanwhile, Tom Klock, the Mayor of Cascade, Mont., deposited $20 million worth of fake money orders in the Stockman's Bank, and declared his town a ''freeman state.'' He has been charged with criminal syndicalism, too.

The Montana ''freemen'' seem bent on secession. They claim to embrace the Bible. They are not as race-centric as their white supremacist counterparts in Idaho. They hate taxes and believe government has sold out to an international banking cabal. They loathe any federal authority, and sympathizers have introduced legislation to severely restrict federal law enforcement agents from performing their duties in Montana.

If all of this has echoes of Civil-War-era popular sovereignty, perhaps guidance can be found in the way America dealt with Bleeding Kansas and insurrectionist John Brown.

Lincoln, on the campaign trail, could admire John Brown's courage but could not abide his violence. Upon election, he declared ''The central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy,'' and ''in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.''

Lincoln was wise enough to know that many of his contemporaries were lawless, but faithful. He often used scriptural language to animate citizens' inchoate faith in a government they understood only vaguely, appealing to ''the better angels of our nature.''

President Clinton, too, has encouraged ordinary citizens to exercise freedom of speech and confront purveyors of hate rhetoric with the truth.

A chinook has now come up in Montana, a warm breeze that, in the words of A. B. Guthrie, ''like a low chant from the land, lapping up snow'' bears ''the promise of spring.'' It signals a reprieve from the long, dark winter.

Perhaps something similar, working in our collective consciousness, can be relied on to carry reason on its wings, and -- in concert with the laws the militants don't understand -- blow the madness away.

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