Flash back to the end of March, when the authorities hauled in nine members of the Hutaree, a Christian paramilitary group, and charged them with plotting a mass assassination of police officers. The media quickly added the arrests to the ongoing narrative of "rising right-wing violence," with the Michigan-based militants cast as the leading edge of a smoldering paramilitary threat. Newscasters and columnists touted a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claiming that the number of anti-government "Patriot" organizations is skyrocketing. An "astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009," the center declared, "with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias)—a 244% jump." If you worry about political violence, the SPLC warned, such growth "is cause for grave concern."
A month later, the Hutaree case is in a state of flux, with prosecutors appealing Judge Victoria Roberts' ruling that the accused should be released on bond while awaiting their trial. There are signs that the judge is unimpressed with the state's case, and she has stressed that prosecutors must demonstrate that the arrestees were guilty of an actual conspiracy to kill cops, not just loose talk. Even "hate-filled, venomous speech," she said, is "a right that deserves First Amendment protection."
Obviously we don't know what evidence has yet to be introduced at trial. Perhaps there really is more at issue here than some chest-beating chatter; perhaps there's a good reason to think a genuine murder plot was underway. But either way, we've learned enough about the Hutaree in the last month to know that the media narrative that greeted their arrests hasn't held up. Assume the worst-case scenario: that the defendants really were planning a massacre and that they really were capable of carrying it out. They still aren't the vanguard of the right-wing revolution. The Hutaree are isolated and despised, not just by the American mainstream but by the bulk of the groups on the SPLC's Patriot list. Indeed, the government may have had the help of some anti-Hutaree militiamen as it forged its case against the accused.
I've Got a Little List...
That much-cited Southern Poverty Law Center list lumps together a very varied set of organizations, blurring the boundary between people who might have sympathy for Hutaree-style plots and people who would want no part of them. "Generally," the SPLC explains, the groups on its roster "define themselves as opposed to the 'New World Order,' engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines." That covers a lot of ground. Using this list to track the threat of right-wing terrorism is like tracking the threat of jihadist terrorism by counting the country's mosques.
The SPLC acknowledges that not all the groups on its list "advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities." But its spokespeople regularly suggest that there's a slippery slope at work. The ubiquitous Mark Potok, for example, has told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he wouldn't accuse any member of the Oath Keepers, a group whose chapters take up 53 spots on the watch list, "of being Timothy McVeigh." But the organization is spreading paranoia, he continued, and "these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence."
This is a variation on the long-discredited gateway drug argument, in which the fact that people who abuse heroin are likely to have tried pot first is seen as evidence that pot causes heroin abuse. Potok is also understating the different directions that people in Patriot circles can be pulled. The Oath Keepers have distanced themselves from violent-minded supporters, and the whole point of the organization is to persuade the government's agents to refuse orders the group considers unconstitutional, a central tactic not of terrorism but of nonviolent civil resistance. Meanwhile, 41 groups on the SPLC list are chapters of the John Birch Society. Far from an adjunct to the militias, the Birchers—notorious for their own conspiracy theories—devoted a lot of effort in the '90s to debunking the more elaborate conspiracy yarns popular in much of the militia world. They frown on insurrectionary violence, too, sometimes suggesting that it merely plays into the hands of the Grand Cabal.
The militia subculture itself is far from united. The University of Hartford historian Robert Churchill—author of an excellent book on the militias, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face—has identified two distinct though sometimes overlapping elements within the movement: the "constitutionalists" and the "millenarians." While the first group stresses civil liberties and organizes in public, the second segment is more prone to paranoid, violent, and apocalyptic rhetoric and is more likely to form secret cells. The Hutaree hail from the far end of the millenarian side of the spectrum. There doesn't seem to be any love lost between them and the area's dominant militia, the constitutionalist Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM), which greeted the March arrests by denouncing the Hutaree as a religious cult. Mike Lackomar of the SMVM even told The Detroit News that the Hutaree had called his militia asking for assistance during the raids and had been rebuffed.
Skeptical readers may object that this is exactly what you'd expect an organization to do if its erstwhile allies are facing federal charges. (The anti-militia writer David Neiwert, for example, greeted the news by declaring that Lackomar's group was "throwing the Hutaree folks under the bus.") But we have independent confirmation of the tensions between the SMVM and the Hutaree. Amy Cooter, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, has been doing fieldwork in the state's militia movement for two years now. She first heard of the Hutaree long before the arrests, when members of the SMVM told her a "story about some crazy people who came to train with them once"; the visitors handled themselves unsafely and were "told not to come back." Cooter also notes that the SMVM, a secular group that includes a convert to Islam, distrusted the "strong anti-Muslim sentiment" it detected in the Hutaree. The SMVM did "keep the lines of communication open," she notes, "but that was to keep an eye on them as much as anything else."
What did "keep an eye on them" mean? In mid-April both Lackomar and Lee Miracle—a member of yet another group, the Southeast Michigan Militia—told The Detroit News that they had warned the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the Hutaree over a year ago. Miracle says he urged the agency to check out the Hutaree website, telling his contact, "See if they creep you out the way they creep me out." Another member reportedly infiltrated the Hutaree and is now serving as a cooperating witness in the case. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny these claims. But Cooter backs up a portion of the militiamen's account, telling the News that she had seen emails about the Hutaree that militia members sent to the Bureau.
None of this is unprecedented. Back in the 1990s, several would-be terrorists in the Patriot milieu were arrested after other militiamen got wind of their plans and alerted police.
The New Brown Scare
Some writers have suggested that the Hutaree arrests should rehabilitate the reputation of the Department of Homeland Security's infamous report on right-wing extremism. But if anything, these splits on the right highlight the central problem with the paper. In the words of Michael German, a former FBI agent who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union, the DHS document focuses "on ideas rather than crime"; it was concerned with extremism itself, not with violence, and it gave no sign that you must be violent to meet its definition of "extremist." That approach doesn't just have ominous implications for civil liberties. To the extent that it catches on, it makes it less likely that the members of a group like the SMVM—a militia that felt the need to "keep an eye on" the Hutaree—will be able to cooperate in the fight against bona fide terrorism.
And that leads us to the biggest trouble with the dominant media narrative: It misdirects our attention. The historian Leo Ribuffo coined the term Brown Scare to describe a wave of countersubversive activity in the 1930s and '40s, when an understandable fear of Nazis unleashed some much less defensible calls for, in Ribuffo's words, "restrictions on the right of native 'fascist' agitators to speak, publish, and assemble." In the process the authorities conflated some very different people together, leading to surveillance not just of German sympathizers but of reputable conservatives. Other historians have identified two subsequent Brown Scares, one in the early '60s and one in the 1990s. Like the better-known Red Scares, but pointing rightwards rather than leftwards, a Brown Scare both exaggerates the threats at hand and obscures the distinctions between genuinely violent plotters, radical but peaceful activists, and members of the mainstream.
You can see such a mindset at work in the SPLC's watch list. You can see it in press accounts that blur still more boundaries, so that there seems to be little difference between a terror cell and a Tea Party. You can see it in documents like the Department of Homeland Security's report. You're even beginning to see it in legislation. Late last month the Oklahoma House voted 98-1 to amend a bill that, among other provisions, increased the penalties for recruiting new gang members. Under the revised legislation, the same penalties would befall recruiters for unauthorized militias.
That is where we stand today. We can reenact the Brown and Red Scares of the past, or we can pull back from a mentality that has never been good for either liberty or security; we can plunge further into madness like the Oklahoma bill, or we can adopt the measured skepticism displayed this week by Judge Roberts. Choose wisely.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.