Right-wing militias on the rise again

John Cook

Right-wing extremist militias are enjoying something of a renaissance, Time magazine's Barton Gellman reports, and the resurgence in anti-government rhetoric and action has federal law enforcement officials worried. Why? Well, there's the case of the multimillionaire neo-Nazi who was in the middle of building a radiological bomb to assassinate Barack Obama when he was killed in 2008. Or the story of James von Brunn, the right-wing fanatic who killed a guard at the National Holocaust Museum last year. His bigger target, Gellman reports, was senior White House adviser David Axelrod.

According to Gellman, the FBI, ATF and various state law enforcement agencies have launched a "small but growing" number of investigations into the blossoming militias around the country. The militia movement has been around since the 1970s and was very active in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president. But the movement  had been on a decade-long downswing before Barack Obama's election and a steep economic downturn -- conditions that one FBI official described to Gellman as the "perfect storm" for recruitment. Gellman writes:

Obama's ascendancy unhinged the radical right, offering a unified target to competing camps of racial, nativist and religious animus. Even Patriots who had no truck with white supremacy found that they could amplify their antigovernment message by "constructing Obama as an alien, not of this country, insufficiently American," according to Michael Waltman, an authority on hate speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Perennial features of extreme-right scare lore — including imagined schemes to declare martial law, abolish private ownership of guns and force dissidents into FEMA concentration camps — became more potent with Obama as the Commander in Chief.

Gellman notes that the purported threat to gun ownership crops up as one of the principal causes for alarm among militia members -- even though Obama has studiously avoided any gun control proposals. "Most likely it will start when the government tries to take our guns," one member of the Ohio Defense Forces told the Time reporter, when asked what government aggression he was training himself to repel.

Law enforcement officials aren't worried about mass uprisings of armed militias; the groups tend to hew to the law even as they prepare for the final confrontation. More troubling, officials say, are the so-called lone wolves, who may act on their own after taking the rhetoric of more organized compatriots to heart.

One such figure was James Cummings, a Maine man killed by his abused wife in 2008. After his death, investigators found doses of radioactive uranium and beryllium, purchased from lab supply stores, and a shopping list of other radioactive elements labeled "best for dirty bombs," Gellman reports. Cummings also had undertaken an explosives project, acquiring the ingredients to make the same stuff that so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid used. Cummings had also been able to draw on a $2 million real estate inheritance to help him execute his plan, which was to drive the dirty bomb to Washington and kill Obama. "When you're cooking thorium and uranium under your kitchen sink, when you have a couple million dollars sitting in the bank and you're hell-bent on doing something, I think at that point you become someone we want to sit up and pay attention to," one Maine law enforcement official told Gellman.

Gellman also found that some of the anti-government rhetoric had also, distressingly, spread to local law enforcement agencies themselves. "About a dozen county sheriffs and several candidates for sheriff in the midterm elections have threatened to arrest federal agents in their jurisdictions" if they try to enforce laws judged unconstitutional, Gellman says.

Gary Noesner, a former FBI hostage negotiator who confronted the right-wing radical mindset during the 1990s, recently told Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air" that the threat of violence from the right is on the rise and that politicians bear some responsibility: "Particularly in today's atmosphere, politicians get news media coverage, and they get attention, when they say controversial things. And if they stir up the pot on whatever the issue is -- you know, the mosque issue in New York is a good example of that. It's turned into a very emotional, very volatile issue, and that speaks to a certain constituency. And there's a certain constituency, I think, that can take those ideas to an extreme -- and dangerous levels. So I think politicians should have a responsibility to try to talk about such matters in a more thoughtful way."

(Photo of Michigan militiamen: AP)