Antigovernment Ire Targets Local Officials
Gunman in this week's fatal N. England shootout held same views as militia zealots
Armed militias creeping through the woods in camouflage. Conspiracy theorists raving about black helicopters and the "New World Order." White supremacists dispensing hateful tracts.
From the Montana "freemen" to the Arizona Viper Militia to the Aryan Nations in Idaho, antigovernment radicals are usually thought of as a twisted remnant of America's frontier past.
But a deadly shootout in New Hampshire this week is a reminder that such attitudes and activities know no geographical bounds and that Uncle Sam is not the only target.
"Now you're not just finding it in the rural West, you're finding it in the rural East and also in urban and suburban areas," says Mark Pitcavage, a historian specializing in extremism.
And while events such as the Oklahoma City bombing two years ago horrifically illustrate opposition to the federal government, it's local zoning board members and county recorders who may have more to be concerned about, says Dr. Pitcavage.
"These are people who don't want any government interference, and often it's the local government that's the most intrusive," says Pitcavage.
So far, there's been nothing to connect Carl Drega - the man who this week killed a judge, two New Hampshire state troopers, and a newspaper editor, and then wounded four other officers before being killed himself - with any antigovernment group or movement.
But antigovernment literature reportedly was found on his property, and experts see in this case an attitude and a pattern of activity very much in line with the most radical militia groups and the "patriot movement" philosophy members typically subscribe to.
Numbers are hard to come by, but it is thought that some 5 million disgruntled Americans have patriot movement leanings - many of those considering themselves "sovereign citizens" not answerable to established government authority.
Drega had a running feud with local officials over zoning restrictions and taxes on his property. He threateningly asserted his right to do what he wanted on his property, and he filed personal lawsuits against officials when he didn't get his way. A "hit list" with the names of two more local officials was found in his truck. Law-enforcement officers found large amounts of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel - the combination used in the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings - on Drega's property.
"We are seeing more and more instances of 'leaderless resistance,' i.e., violent acts committed by individuals dedicated to a particular ideology or cause but not necessarily members of any formal group or organization," writes security expert Stefan Leader in a recent paper commissioned by the Department of Energy.
Most of those with a gripe against government officials and agencies - whether it's over a property-tax bill or the power of the United Nations - would never react the way Drega did.
More challenges of authority
But around the country, there's a growing list of cases in which the authority of government officials is being challenged - sometimes illegally.
* In Tampa, Fla., last week, the leader of the Constitutional Common Law Court of We the People and six followers were convicted of multiple charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. In a long-running case involving building-code violations, landlord Emilio Ippolito and the others had threatened to arrest judges, juries, and elected officials who tried to enforce "inferior" state or federal laws.
* A week earlier, another "common-law court" in Topeka, Kan., voted to "impeach" US district Judge J. Thomas Marten.
* In February, tax protesters tied to the common-law movement were arrested for interfering with police in Connecticut.
* And in Montana, the freemen (who surrendered after an 81-day standoff last summer) have loudly and sometimes profanely rejected the authority of the federal court where their case is being heard.
Some 130 common-law courts (which claim authority going back to English common law) have been identified in 35 states. Some are more nuisances than anything else, ignored by those ordered to appear. But in other cases, common-law courts have filed liens ranging up to millions of dollars against judges and local officials. It often takes years and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get the liens removed. And some three-quarters of all phony liens - what Dr. Leader calls "paper terrorism" - are filed by antigovernment groups.
The common-law court movement is widespread, Pitcavage says, and several states are cracking down on these courts. The US Justice Department has launched about two dozen investigations and prosecutions of activities related to the courts.
Still, experts say, the most difficult antigovernment cases remain those like the one in New Hampshire - and Oklahoma City - involving one or two individuals intent on committing violent acts.