When a bomb-packed rental truck blasted the federal building in Oklahoma City two years ago, it also thrust a little-known militia movement into American consciousness.
Today, as jury selection in the case against prime suspect Timothy McVeigh methodically continues, the antigovernment sentiments that appear to have motivated him are very much a part of militia organizations around the country.
Conspiracy theorists warning of "one-world government" are packing meeting halls. "Common law courts," set up by those claiming to be "sovereign citizens," are issuing death warrants and filing liens against government officials. The Internet has sprouted many sites promoting antigovernment and racist philosophies.
Yet one shouldn't conclude that all or even most militia members and supporters are dangerous. "It's really unfair to look at the Oklahoma City bombing and say, 'Ah, that is what the militia movement is,' " says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a Massachusetts organization that tracks such groups. "Timothy McVeigh was a very marginal figure within the militias. He was a radical within the militia movement. He was not welcome."
Most who associate themselves with militia activity or philosophy agree with this assessment. "We're not antigovernment, we're not anti-law enforcement," insists Lynn Van Huizen, commander of the Michigan Militia Wolverines. "We adhere to all laws without exception, and we won't tolerate anybody who goes out and breaks the law."
Still, there has been a string of robberies, bombings, and thwarted attacks around the country connected to militia members since the April 19, 1995 explosion in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. And some law-enforcement officials remain the target of antigovernment radicals.
Last week, a letter from the "Illinois Freedom Militia, Southern Zone" warned federal judge J. Phil Gilbert that his family could be attacked with a car bomb if he does not resign from the bench by the end of next month. Judge Gilbert heard a case in which federal agents seized a home for back taxes. In Idaho, state Attorney General Alan Lance and his deputy chief of staff have begun carrying handguns for protection. Both men are under death warrants from so-called common-law courts.
Most militia or "patriot" organizations keep membership numbers secret. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch project last month reported 858 active patriot groups in the United States, including 380 armed militias. Overall, the number of Americans who count themselves militia members (as many as 60,000) or are at least politically disgruntled and with militia leanings (some 5 million) appears to have remained stable despite the bad publicity following the Oklahoma City bombing.
"I have not really seen anything to suggest that people are dropping out or the number of groups is decreasing," says Mark Pitcavage, an expert on the history of US militias who works with a US Justice Department program training state and local law enforcement officials about domestic terrorism.
Legitimate militia groups have tried to separate themselves from their more radical and violent counterparts. But experts say the distinctions are not always clear
"...[E]ven though most militia groups claim they only operate defensively, the extremely high levels of paranoia most such groups possess means that they often think they are acting justifiably when they are not," Mr. Pitcavage warns in the "Militia Watchdog" Web site he oversees. "And even groups that as groups may not pose a danger can spawn individuals committed to violent or extreme acts."
This appears to have happened in several instances over the past two years.
Three white separatists from Idaho were recently convicted of conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen vehicles, and possession of hand grenades. Following a mistrial, they will be retried on bank robbery and pipe-bombing charges tied to attacks on a bank, newspaper office, and Planned Parenthood office in Spokane, Wash.
* Nine members of the Viper Militia in Arizona last month pleaded guilty to weapons and conspiracy charges.
* In February, three militia members in Georgia were sentenced to federal prison for stockpiling pipe bombs.
* In January, five white separatists were indicted for conspiring to rob seven banks in the Midwest.
* In federal court in Billings, Mont., 24 "freemen" face charges of conspiracy, threatening federal officials, bank fraud, and weapons offenses. They surrendered after an 81-day standoff last summer.
While law-enforcement officials have been able to infiltrate some groups and bring about prosecutions, they know there remains the potential for more militia attacks.
Federal officials will be especially watchful as April 19 approaches, a date antigovernment activists find significant. It marked the beginning of the American Revolution with the battles of Lexington and Concord. It was the date federal agents attempted to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh near Waco, Texas, resulting in a shootout and conflagration. It was the date white supremacist Richard Wayne Snell was executed for killing a shop owner and Arkansas state trooper. And it was on April 19 that the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, allegedly by Timothy McVeigh.
Militia groups that consider themselves law-abiding are anxious as well. "We're sitting on just as many pins and needles as federal law enforcement is," says Mr. Van Huizen.