Stewart Rhodes does not seem like an extremist. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former U.S. Army paratrooper and congressional staffer. He is not at all secretive. In February he was sitting at a table at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at a fancy downtown hotel in Washington, handing out fliers and selling T shirts for his organization, the Oath Keepers. Rhodes says he has 6,000 dues-paying members, active and retired police and military, who promise never to take orders to disarm U.S. citizens or herd them into concentration camps. Rhodes told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "We're not a militia." Oath Keepers do not run around the woods on the weekend shooting weapons or threatening the violent overthrow of the government. Their oath is to uphold the Constitution and defend the American people from dictatorship.
But by conjuring up the specter of revolution—or counterrevolution—is Rhodes adding to the threat of real violence? Oath Keepers are "a particularly worrisome example of the 'patriot' revival," according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate speech and extremist organizations. "Patriot" groups—described by the SPLC as outfits "that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose 'one-world government' on liberty-loving Americans"—are "roaring back" after years out of the limelight, according to Potok. Notorious in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the patriot groups seemed to fade away under the shadow of 9/11, but hard times and the nation's first African-American president seem to have brought about a revival—from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 (127 of them militias) in 2009, according to the SPLC.
It is easy to exaggerate the numbers of these groups or the threat they pose, especially if you are an organization, like the SPLC, dedicated to exposing such things. Extremist outfits have come and gone over the years. With their preening and prancing about in Nazi garb or white robes, skinheads and white supremacists are often more about showing off than committing acts of violence. Law-enforcement experts worry more about "lone wolves," disturbed loners with military training, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, than they do about loudmouth militia groups. But the feds and local authorities will be watching closely on April 19, when the Oath Keepers mark their first anniversary and join a Second Amendment March on Washington to celebrate the right to bear arms. The Oath Keepers say they are commemorating the first shots of the Revolutionary War fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, but April 19 is also the anniversary of the end of the FBI siege at Waco, Texas, in 1993, as well as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
This is a season, or perhaps an era, when politics seem more intense than usual, and the domestic extremist threat seems more real. Partisan disputes are rarely pretty, but lately they have taken a particularly ugly, menacing turn. Last week the FBI arrested individuals for making death threats against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington for their votes on health-care reform. A series of expletive-strewn voice-mail messages left for Senator Murray were particularly creepy: "You're gonna have a target on your back for the rest of your life," the caller warned. "How long do you think you can hide?"
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said last week that serious threats to members of Congress had nearly tripled, from 15 in the last three months of 2009 to 42 in the first quarter of 2010, with most of them coming in March during the height of the health-care debate. Some of the calls and e-mails were "very vicious" and included threats to members' homes and families. "You had people saying, 'I'm going to get your kids, I'm going to get your wife,' " says Gainer. "It was very disturbing to members."
After the health-reform vote, a tea-party activist in Lynchburg, Va., posted an address for Rep. Tom Perriello on his blog and encouraged readers to "drop by" and express their anger over Perriello's vote for the bill. The blogger got the address wrong. Perriello's brother returned home that day to find that someone had cut the line to a -propane-gas tank behind his home. The fact that haters are sometimes incompetent renders them only marginally less frightening. Some threats come from people who are truly unhinged. Federal authorities have charged a man with multiple-personality disorder with threatening in a YouTube video to kill Rep. Eric Cantor; the suspect is not competent to stand trial.
Economic distress and social change make for fear, and fear makes for anger, now and always. Night riders terrorized the defenseless after the Civil War. During the Great Depression, two demagogues in particular whipped up conspiracy theories against Jewish bankers and the rich elites to arouse angry mass movements. Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, later a U.S. senator who wanted to soak the rich, and Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest whose radio show reached 40 million people, seemed a political threat to FDR, until Long was assassinated and Coughlin became increasingly unhinged.
"There was a lot of hatred in the 1930s," says Alan Brinkley, the Columbia University historian and expert on populist movements. But the currentsurge of fear and loathing toward Obama is "scary," he says. "There's a big dose of race behind the real crazies, the ones who take their guns to public meetings. I can't see this happening if McCain were president, or [any] white male." (Secret Service spokespeople reported spikes in threats against Obama after his election and inauguration, but they've also said the president generally receives about the same number of threats as did Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They've declined to comment on whether there's been a spike in threats related to health-care reform.)
By Evan Thomas and Eve Conant | NEWSWEEK
Published Apr 9, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Apr 19, 2010
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