Armed, crazy and lost in the Wild West

 

Back in December, I covered some Western militia meetings as part of a nationwide report on the militia movement. In the wake of recent events, those gatherings have taken on a more sinister glow.

What struck me at the time was that every person I randomly interviewed was a recent transplant to the Northwest.

It's not that we're new territory for right-wingers. Ever since the 1950s, weathered billboards in some John Bircher's pasture have blared "GET U.S. OUT OF THE U.N. NOW!" But this decade's great white flight to the Northwest from Southern California, Florida, the industrial Midwest and other urbanized states has brought refugees who are far more active and dogmatic than most longtime locals.

Their new, bolder, right-wing groups encourage colonization of the West in the name of white supremacy, apocalyptic refuge and exemption from taxation, gun control and environmental regulation. In the rural Northwest, their arrival has also set off a real estate boom as immigrants search for scenery, low crime, lax regulation and racial homogeneity. But only the well-off can survive the boom, since land and housing prices are now sky-high and no business or industrial base has developed to provide jobs for newcomers. Increasingly, working and middle-class settlers find themselves marooned and strapped amid all this beauty and social homogeneity.

Besides their guns, many of the new immigrants brought emotional and financial problems and paranoia with them. Those factors, combined with the federal government's bungled handling of the Waco disaster and the Randy Weaver stand off, make transplants prime recruits for citizens' militias. Militia leaders like John Trochmann, who moved to Noxon, Mont., a few years ago after his Minnesota snowmobile-parts business collapsed, speak a language these folks understand.

At my first militia meeting in Spokane, Wash., Trochmann, who recently told reporters that the government bombed its employees in Oklahoma, introduced the main speaker, Mark Koernke from Michigan, a nerdy-looking guy in a suit who said he once worked in military intelligence. Koernke displayed marked-up newspaper photos and stories "documenting" how the United States was being set up for an Orwellian takeover by the United Nations. He flashed photos of Russian tanks, trucks and rockets now supposedly on U.S. soil and talked about black helicopters and mysterious highway markers which will direct convoys of arrested U.S. citizens to concentration camps, to Mexico as slaves, or to death.

Every now and then, men scattered around the hall would whoop and yell in affirmation of Koernke's remarks. The loudest applause came when he declared, "I will not in my lifetime let another Waco take place. The next time this happens, we will be armed to the teeth. We are not going to be reading history - we're going to be making history, and that's exciting."

At the end of the program, Koernke raised his fist and yelled, "Death to the New World Order!"

The next afternoon in the tiny town of Addy, Wash., I listened to Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, wax enthusiastic about the new information superhighway. "We're going to beat them with electrons," he said. Next up was Troy Mader of Wyoming, head of the wise-use Common Man Institute and its offshoot, the Abundant Wildlife Foundation, who came to warn Washington state against wolves, and to speak about his group's fight to stop the restoration of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

"Most environmental groups, with no regard for truth, use misinformation to further their agendas and are anti-God, anti-American and anti-gun," charged Mader.

Mader calls democracy "mob rule" and claims that America is supposed to be a republic. In a newsletter, he wrote: "Generally, the majority is wrong."

Even without the specter of the Oklahoma bombing, the West feels wackier by the minute. Look at the July 4th incident, when crowds cheered as Commissioner Dick Carver of Nye County, Nev., bulldozed open a closed road on federal land, despite a Forest Service staffer blocking the way. Or the March 30th bombing of a Forest Service office in Carson City, Nev., which militia members also blame on the government. Or the arrest and subsequent dismissal of charges against seven Militia of Montana members and self-declared Freemen (including Trochmann) for allegedly plotting to kidnap and hang a state judge in Roundup, Mont. After the arrest, one angry Freeman threatened to blow up a public power station as retaliation.

In February, the Montana Legislature killed a resolution that called for the formation of armed citizen militias. It may seem amazing that such a measure was even considered, but times are changing. Catron County, N.M., passed a resolution last year urging every household to own a gun.

Helen Chenoweth, a new Republican member of Congress from Boise, Idaho, who comes across as a perky Mary Kay cosmetics cheerleader, has won the rare and coveted militia seal of approval. Before her election, Chenoweth appeared in a Militia of Montana video warning against the dangers of environmentalism. Another anti-environmentalist video put out by the wise-use group People for the West! is introduced by Arizona Gov. Fife Symington. And even after the Oklahoma bombing, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson met with militia members and characterized them as "responsible, reasonable, lawful."

When you mix guns, anti-environmentalism, conspiracy theories and disenchanted (and sometimes unbalanced) people with political allies like Helen Chenoweth, then you have a grassroots movement dangerously approaching fascism.

It's enough to make this local rant: "We were wild enough already, without bringing in low-brow James Bonds and neo-vigilante exiles from suburbia."

Patrick Dawson is a fourth-generation Montanan and freelance writer based in Billings, Mont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.