In the end, the saga of the "freemen" may finish with a whimper rather than a bang. If it does, the lesson, say government officials and experts, is that patience, quiet negotiations, and a better understanding of such groups' aberrant religious and political beliefs are more successful in resolving confrontations than the armed assaults at Waco, Texas, or Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
"It's a far better way to deal with dissident subcultures of the left or the right than we've seen over the last 20 or 30 years," says Chip Berlet, an expert on radical movements at Political Research Associates, a think tank in Somerville, Mass.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law-enforcement agencies, says Mr. Berlet, "are now trying to employ this new model of putting the group in the context of its belief structure and approaching them accordingly."
For example, several weeks ago the FBI brought to Montana Philip Arnold of the Reunion Institute, a Houston think tank on religions, to advise the federal agents on handling the freemen. Mr. Arnold had been critical of federal-agency actions during the 1993 siege at Waco. This week, FBI officials also accepted as mediators several representatives of the CAUSE Foundation, an organization based in Black Mountain, N.C., that has represented Ku Klux Klan leaders as well as Branch Davidian members who survived the Waco episode.
While the pace of resolution has seemed frustratingly slow to local officials and ranch families, the trust built up over weeks of negotiations apparently allowed freemen leaders to leave the compound for consultations with the FBI without fear of being nabbed on the spot. And it undoubtedly set the scene for those inside what they called "Justus Township" to begin leaving - especially when officials agreed to dismiss relatively minor charges and when they also asked family members to help in the negotiations.
Sherry Matteucci, the United States Attorney for Montana, made a point of publicly saying she was "exceedingly grateful" to the sister of one woman inside the compound who decided to leave with fellow family members. "The love of family played a significant part in this result," she said.
While the tactics appear to have been successful in this case, the FBI may get other opportunities to refine them. There is evidence that militia and freemen-like activity has spread to at least 18 states, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish organization that tracks hate groups.
"The freemen ... have been energetic in proselytizing their ideology, which includes religious and racial bigotry," warns the ADL in a recent study. "They have conducted seminars instructing followers from around the country in their views and ... about 800 people have traveled to the freemen's Montana ranch over the course of a year to learn how to produce false financial documents."
Meanwhile, according to the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland, Ore., common-law courts - a device used by radical groups to "sue" local, state, and federal officials - now are active in 30 states.
"There is no effort on the part of these activists to reform the existing system or to highlight specific instances of injustice," warns a recent report by the coalition. "Rather common-law court proponents seek to displace existing judicial authority by investing themselves with the power of law and employing private armies - 'militias' and 'posses' - to enforce their decisions."
Computers, laser printers, and Internet home pages also have become the weapons of choice among such groups - ways to provide easy and widespread access to the public. This has added to the concern over the so-called "patriot movement."
At last count, unofficial state militias in Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia had set up Internet sites.
The 11-week drama involving the antigovernment radicals on a Montana ranch began to break last week when Gloria Ward and her two daughters and common-law husband left the freemen compound on a ranch in Brusett, Mont. On Tuesday, group leader Edwin Clark was flown by FBI aircraft from the ranch to Billings, Mont., where he met with LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen. It was the March arrest and jailing of these two men on fraud charges that began the standoff. The next day, Amanda Kendricks, the last minor among 17 members, left the ranch.
At this writing, at least some of the remaining freemen were expected to surrender in exchange for some sort of legal airing of their complaints against the US government and local authorities.
Ohio-based historian Mark Pitcavage, who specializes in militias and is completing a book titled "Armies of Darkness," calls the Montana freemen "the most infamous of these right-wing anarchists."
"They spawned an extralegal empire in the wilderness of Montana, using not AK-47s but legal briefs, not military uniforms but the Uniform Commercial Code," he writes. "But they wavered between being patriotic paralegal-guerrillas and simple frauds, and ended up bringing down upon themselves the enmity not only of the hated federal government, but friends and neighbors as well."