Sizing Up Militias

THE American militia movement that spawned a Timothy McVeigh does represent an important and sadly ignored undercurrent of hatred and anger. Moreover, those negative passions may grow -- particularly if Americans do not take an interest in the profound sense of human alienation that partly explains why they are happening.

But a little bit of reflection indicates one thing Americans do not need to do: overreact. The militias are an excellent media story, clearly. Like the characters in some fantastic David Lynch film, the militias strip off the exterior view of a merely satisfied consumer society to show trouble beneath.

Yet media fascination usually results in the story being hyped past its true meaning. One can scarcely watch 20 minutes of TV without seeing the familiar scraggly lines of middle-aged men in camouflage listening to a ''commander'' rant about a one-world army led by the UN. As the shock of Oklahoma City diminishes, Americans should take a sober look at the actual strength of these groups. In a country of 250 million, this isn't yet significant. Moreover, the groups should not be overrated. At a recent militia rally in Cornish, N.H., a friend found more reporters than militia members on the scene. (The media witnessed dangerously clever warnings from militia leaders, like a comment about how to spot government sympathizers -- they use zip codes.)

The Michigan militia, oft-quoted, numbers 12,000. The so-called ''Unorganized Militia of the United States,'' founded last year, claims 3 million. But we are dubious of these figures. A number of observers wryly agree -- they are unorganized.

There is an enormous distance between even the person who signs up to receive militia publications -- and the person able and willing to take up arms and march down a path to violence. True, there will always be a hard-core element who need a scapegoat to substitute for their own unwillingness to face the real world and work at living in a truly civil society.

Anger and hate are toxic elements. But lawmakers should recognize that militias are not the cause; they are a symptom. There is still enough reason and intelligence in America to find a cure -- without going overboard.

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