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Militia movement enters mainstream politics, posing domestic threat

Andrew Halcro
Aaron Jansen illustration

Analysis: The trial of the Fairbanks militia members accused of plotting to kill judges and law enforcements officials is just the tip of the iceberg for American militias that have been rapidly gaining followers. These groups, whose numbers have exploded since 2009, have been fueled by hate, paranoia and racism.

Over the last 20 years, America has seen the rise, fall and now the rise again of groups who have preached paranoia and conspiracy theories about a perceived loss of liberty. Judging from history, these groups tend to spike during Democratic administrations.

In the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, after Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho and the explosive spectacle in Texas that was Waco, the militia movement kicked into high gear. Fearing that government wasn't averse to killing its own citizens, fringe groups began recruiting members to protect themselves against what they believed to be a growing government threat.

Guide to Alaska sovereign citizens trial: Patriots, militias and going to extremes

The militia movement was further emboldened by the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s federal building that killed 168 people, carried out by fringe group members who had become true believers of their explosive rhetoric and government conspiracy theories.

By 1996 the militia movement peaked at 858 groups, and by 2000 it had dropped to 150, becoming almost non-existent due to a crackdown by law enforcement and the election of a strongly conservative president, George W. Bush.

Eight years later, the anti-government militia movement is picking up steam after the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

A new movement

During the 2008 presidential campaign, crowds at McCain-Palin rallies were heard yelling terms like “socialist” and “terrorist.” These feelings helped light the militia fuse after Obama became the 44th president of the United States. It was not uncommon both during and after the election to see Obama’s picture on signs that had been distorted to resemble Hitler.

“This is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years,” wrote Mark Potok in a report titled "Militias: The Second Wave" back in 2009 for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “All is lacking is a spark. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.” This falls right in the same timeline as the creation of Schaeffer Cox’s Fairbanks militia.

After running unsuccessfully in 2008 in the Alaska state House Republican primary, Cox began acting as if the world was on the verge of martial law. “The country is going to hell on a freight train,” Cox told a gathering of like-minded believers at a gathering in 2010.

Soon after his election defeat, he began efforts to procure guns and other weapons for an assault on judges and law enforcement. Cox’s movement, like many in the United States, was born from a number of paranoid and delusional beliefs.

In addition to the first black president in history and the fear of a liberal administration that would take their guns and ammo, today's militia movement has become motivated by the growing number of non-white immigrants and the decline in the number of whites in America.

What has been different about the rise of militias in the last three years compared to the 1990s is not only the emergence of the Internet that has spawned better coordination between these extremists, but the cross-breeding of anti government groups. The right-wing militias have assimilated with the Patriot movements, anti-Semite organizations and the tea party to widen their base and obscure their true agenda.

Politics of hate and conspiracy

According to the SPLC, hate groups have risen from 150 in 2008 to more than 1,274 in 2011. "It is quite amazing the rapid growth of these groups in the last few years," said Potok in a phone interview with AndrewHalcro.com.

According to a newsletter published in 2009 by Chip Berlat of the Political Research Group, today “it is easier for right-wing demagogues to successfully demonize liberals, immigrants and others.”

Public officials and media personalities, who have given groups like the Patriots and the tea party their unfettered endorsement, have also exacerbated the growth of the hate movement.

During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman spoke often about her bizarre belief that the president was "creating reeducation camps for young people.”

Another political figure that has fueled propaganda and conspiracy theories has been Ron Paul and his continued diatribe against the Federal Reserve Bank. In fact, a former Paul staffer started a group called “Oath Keepers,” which lists 10 apocalyptic scenarios they fear on their website. The list of government orders they won’t obey consist of situations such as refusing “any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentrations camps.” Giant concentration camps? It’s clear these people have watched  "Escape from New York" one too many times. Snake Pliskin would be proud of the propaganda these groups are peddling.

Also, who can ignore how former FOX News host Glenn Beck grew his audience significantly by turning everything the Obama administration did into a conspiracy theory. Beck became so consumed by animosity that even FOX couldn’t handle his fiery rhetoric and eventually cut him loose.

Birth of Fairbanks militia

This growing phenomenon of different militia groups over the last few years has tracked closely with the birth of the Fairbanks militia.

Over the last few years, arrests such as in Cox’s case have become common. Most are arrested with larges caches of weapons, including grenades, and show strong evidence of anti-government behavior.

One of the key driving forces behind the militia’s belief structure is that the government is on the verge of creating a new world order. This is laughable when one actually looks at the current world order.

The European Union, created in 1999, is on the verge of collapse due to the fact that many member countries disagree with each other on a number of issues, including finances. China has adopted capitalistic reforms over the last decade and has become more worried about maintaining their solid GDP growth than world consolidation. The same goes for Russia.

Still, militia members fear they’re losing their country to European-type policies and immigrants, along with a perceived assault on their religion. “This isn’t the face of America they remember,” said James Cochran in the SPLC report, who has authored a book on the rise of the militia movement.

"The subscribers of these conspiracy theories have been boosted by groups like the John Birch Society (JBC)," stated Potok.

One of the contributing drivers has been the fear sold by the JBC about a U.N Resolution titled "Agenda 21." The resolution was signed by the first President Bush back in 1992 and is an unenforceable agreement that was signed along with 177 other world leaders who committed to striving for a sustainable planet. The JBC has been selling the theory that this is a plot to create a political world order. Again, this agreement between nations is completely unenforceable. 

But one of the most troubling aspects has been the encroachment of these groups into the mainstream. In January, the GOP adopted a plank opposing Agenda 21.

"These fringe groups have found a way to enter into the mainstream through a major political party," Potok said. 

In Iowa, the state GOP adopted several planks in their platform born of the militia movement. These include ignoring any federal law the party doesn't like, eliminate no-fault divorce laws (if that isn't the epitome of government intrusion, I don't know what is), and eliminate every federal agency, including many that protect Americans from serious harm.

These real examples show how extreme groups, through proxies, are infiltrating mainstream political agendas. 

During the trial of Schaeffer Cox and his Fairbanks militia brethren, attempts were made to portray Cox as more Gandhi than Rambo. Once again, this analogy shows just how much Cox’s self-portrayal was delusional and radically detached from reality.

Mohandas Gandhi spent his life employing non-violent civil disobedience to achieve his goals. John Rambo roamed the woods strapped with a machine gun to achieve his goals, similar to Cox and his group's alleged plot.

But the more the trial progresses, the more we see just how paranoid Cox was, and how his claims to have thousands of armed members standing behind him was nothing more than self-aggrandizement.

However, even with how rag-tag Cox’s group appears, the growing threat of American based militia groups is real and poses a serious threat to society through potential acts of domestic terrorism. Last year in Georgia, four militia members were arrested after plotting to attack four U.S. cities with ricin. They also had plans to blow up and assassinate several federal targets.  

The threat of anti-government groups is real. The threat of domestic terrorism is real. And the threat of fiery anti-government rhetoric spread by the tea party, politicians, political pundits and co-opted by more extreme right-wing groups is real.

The Fairbanks militia aside, there is no denying the evidence that hate, paranoia and racism appear to be fueling a rapid expansion within extreme far-right groups.

Andrew Halcro is the publisher of AndrewHalcro.com, a blog devoted to Alaska issues and politics, where this commentary first appeared. He is president of Halcro Strategies and Avis/Alaska Rent-A-Car, his family business. Halcro served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003, and he ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.