When the Christian Patriot “militia” movement flowered in my state, people thought it a joke.
The chaplain of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, the Rev. Butch Paugh, solemnly told news reporters that armed believers must train to fight off foreign invaders controlled by Satan. “The United Nations forces worldwide are going to be the powers that help enforce the Antichrist’s dictates,” he warned.
The militia’s commander, Ray Looker, said “New World Order” troops would seize America in the summer of 1995. He claimed the intruders would disarm “patriots” and haul them to hidden concentration camps, following secret marks on the backs of road signs. Mysterious black helicopters reportedly were swooping in preparation. His militia volunteers trained to be resistance fighters.
Later, Pastor Paugh demanded special driver’s licenses for his followers, on grounds that new photo cards with barcodes are the biblical “mark of the beast.” The minister told reporters: “This is a total takeover by the beast system and a plan to ID everyone on the planet.”
As militias grew in the 1990s, they seemed comical — but they really weren’t funny. A few of the armed wackos hatched murder plots. Commander Looker, who said he has a doctorate in theology, was charged with planning to blow up an FBI fingerprint center in West Virginia. Federal agents said he also plotted to assassinate Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in a “holy war” against the government. The commander eventually pleaded guilty and drew 18 years in prison. From his cell, Looker filed a lawsuit protesting that the warden wouldn’t provide him special worship services as a Messianic Jew who believes that Jesus was the messiah of Judaism.
The 1990s were a heyday of the militia movement, which varied from state to state, group to group. Thousands of members belonged to hundreds of known units. The adherents were extreme right-to-bear-arms zealots who felt that the sinister federal government wanted to disarm them, leaving them defenseless. They frequented gun shows, wrote newsletters and preached their views on the internet.
Many were attached to the racist “Christian Identity” movement, which teaches that the “lost tribes of Israel” migrated to England, eventually producing America’s settlers. Thus, the logic goes, white Americans actually are God’s “chosen people.” Leaders contend that nonwhites are “mud people,” that gays must be executed and that Jews were fathered by Satan.
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A slightly different branch, neo-Nazis in America’s Midwest, armed themselves to battle ZOG, the Zionist Occupational Government they expected to seize America and rule with black police.
After Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 unsuspecting people, his links to militia figures triggered a national crackdown. Ex-soldier McVeigh thought the Army had planted a computer chip in his rump to track him. (The Michigan Militia’s pastor-commander said the Oklahoma bombing was committed by the Japanese government.)
After Oklahoma City, federal informants infiltrated paramilitary groups. When FBI agents attempted to arrest members for possessing illicit weapons and bombs, various shootouts occurred. An 80-day siege ensued in 1996 at a Montana ranch operated by “Freemen.” They finally surrendered and 14 were charged. The following year, Republic of Texas Militia members seized hostages and holed up — but they too surrendered after a week. Two chiefs of the North American Militia drew half-century sentences for terrorist plots.
America’s far-right extremist fringe has many faces, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Aryan Nations to Posse Comitatus to the National Alliance to white-supremacy skinheads. Many of the faces involve crackpot Christianity. The malignant effects of such ideologies are being intensely felt — as manifested in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. The history of these groups goes quite a ways back.
This column is adapted and updated from a piece originally published in the Charleston Gazette on Aug. 5, 2009.