I'll wager that Glenn Beck, like a lot of people, has heard the famous Thomas Jefferson quote:
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Maybe he's even seen one of the T-shirts bearing that inscription.
But then, there's one of these T-shirts that's especially notable: It was the one Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested for blowing up 168 people at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City back in 1995.
Does this mean that anyone wearing one of these shirts, or expressing these sentiments, is a crazed militiaman eager and willing to blow up government workers and their children? Er, no. But at the same, the meaning of that T-shirt is actually critical to understanding what happened in Oklahoma City.
The Missouri State Patrol's information arm recently compiled a report about militias (you can read it here), largely as a way of helping to inform their officers in the field, who are the people most at risk when it comes to random encounters with armed right-wing extremists.
The report, unsurprisingly, created a firestorm among the conservatives who suddenly found they had more of a resemblance to a right-wing extremist than they thought:
A new document meant to help Missouri law enforcement agencies identify militia members or domestic terrorists has drawn criticism for some of the warning signs mentioned.
The Feb. 20 report called "The Modern Militia Movement" mentions such red flags as political bumper stickers for third-party candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who ran for president last year; talk of conspiracy theories, such as the plan for a superhighway linking Canada to Mexico; and possession of subversive literature.
"It seems like they want to stifle political thought," said Roger Webb, president of the University of Missouri campus Libertarians. "There are a lot of third parties out there, and none of them express any violence. In fact, if you join the Libertarian Party, one of the things you sign in your membership application is that you don't support violence as a means to any ends."
But state law enforcement officials said the report is being misinterpreted.
Lt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the report comes from publicly available, trend data on militias. It was compiled by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a "fusion center" in Jefferson City that combines resources from the federal Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The center, which opened in 2005, was set up to collect local intelligence to better combat terrorism and other criminal activity, he said.
"All this is an educational thing," Hotz said of the report. "Troopers have been shot by members of groups, so it's our job to let law enforcement officers know what the trends are in the modern militia movement."
When I saw this story a few days ago, I knew that sooner or later it was going to get trotted out on Glenn Beck's Fox News show as proof of evil government perfidy. After all, it's already become an Alex Jones special -- which is to say, the air is thick with black helicopters and jetstream contrails.
Sure enough: Yesterday on his show Beck had a segment in which he and Penn Gillette discussed how crazy it was for law enforcement to be profiling people as potential domestic terrorists for behaviors that ordinary citizens like themselves indulge happily, as they should.
They noticed, at one point, that there's actually very little about Patriot movement beliefs to which they subscribe. It's just that their libertarianism might trip some of the outward indicators suggested in the report.
One of the people interviewed in the Kansas City report expressed similar views:
But Tim Neal, a military veteran and delegate to last year's state GOP convention, was shocked by the report's contents.
"I was going down the list and thinking, 'Check, that's me,'" he said. "I'm a Ron Paul supporter, check. I talk about the North American union, check. I've got the 'America: Freedom to Fascism' video loaned out to somebody right now. So that means I'm a domestic terrorist? Because I've got a video about the Federal Reserve?"
Neal, who has a Ron Paul bumper sticker on his car, said the next time he is pulled over by a police officer, he won't know whether it's because he was speeding or because of his political views.
Here's the catch: There's nothing even remotely inaccurate in the report. Every fact that it reports can be readily substantiated.
More to the point, there's nothing in the report suggesting that any of these traits taken individually is a sign of radicalism. Rather, officers are expected to be able to take in certain signals simply as warning signs and indicators, not evidence of either criminal intent or radical behavior.
What the report reflects is a reality that law enforcement trying to deal with domestic terrorism in America must confront: Their subjects are thoroughly American; many of the people drawn into these movements are, if anything, "hyper-normal." Their version of "patriotism," for instance, is so extreme that they actually hate not just their government but their fellow citizens -- in essence, their country: because, you see, it has been "perverted" from its original purposes.
The hyper-normality is a kind of intentional camouflage. The Patriot movement, and militias in particular, were a very specific and intentional strategy adopted in the 1990s by the white supremacists and radical tax protesters of the American far right -- and the whole purpose of the strategy was to mainstream their belief systems and their agendas. The tactic was to adopt the appearance of normal, "red-blooded" Americanism as a way of pushing out the idea that their radical beliefs are "normal" too.
In the process, they often adopted time-worn "patriotic" sayings and symbols, such as the "Don't Tread On Me" flag Beck wears, as their own -- though with a much more menacing meaning. If you've seen that flag at an Aryan Nations compound, as I have, you never quite look at it the same.
This is why the meaning of Thomas Jefferson's quote above is quite different for them than it is for you and me. To all outward appearances, it is just an expression of avid patriotism. But to a Patriot movement follower, it means something potentially deadly.
This is especially the case for law-enforcement officers in the field:
Any time law enforcement offices encounter people with extreme ideologies, safety issues potentially arise. However, for a variety of reasons, certain circumstances pose a heightened threat of violent confrontation. Some situations, for instance, are particularly stressful for extremists, increasing the chances that they may lash out or overreact.
... Traffic stops are potentially some of the most dangerous situations that law enforcement officers can face when dealing with extremists. Numerous officers have been killed, wounded, shot at, or attacked during traffic stop incidents involving extremists during the past twenty years.
Some of these confrontations have been well-publicized. In 1997, television audiences across the country watched a police car video of a shootout in Ohio between two white supremacists, Cheyne and Chevie Kehoe, and local police officers. Yet some of the more incredible incidents have received remarkably little publicity. In one recent case in March 2000, three anti-government extremists (Lloyd Burrus, his son Jeff Burrus, and Cheryl Kate Maarteuse) were stopped for speeding by a Nevada highway patrol officer about sixty miles north of Las Vegas. The officer spotted a shotgun in the vehicle and radioed for backup. While he waited, the extremists sped off. During the ensuing chase, they shot at police vehicles from both Nevada and California, then turned off-road, where their BMW became stuck. Burrus and his accomplices abandoned the vehicle but took their weapons and ammunition, which they used to shoot down a California Highway Patrol helicopter that had arrived on scene. Eventually, after a twelve hour standoff involving over a hundred law enforcement officers, they gave themselves up.
There's nothing in the Missouri report that suggests anyone of the Patriot persuasion be arrested or treated as a terrorist -- because it's perfectly legal, in fact, to hold as radical beliefs as one likes in this country. The report simply tries to give officers a factual overview of some of the motivations of right-wing extremists, and what kinds of things are likely to set them off.
What's not legal is to act criminally on behalf of those beliefs. Unfortunately, Patriot beliefs -- particularly the more radical beliefs about the government's legitimacy (or lack thereof) -- actually tend to help induce such behavior. The police officers whose job it is to stop such criminality need to be able to assess what they're dealing with on the ground -- whether someone they've pulled over for not having license plates on their car is likely to pull something stupid.
Law enforcement officers need complete and accurate information in order to survive in the field. Maybe Glenn Beck is more worried about the tender paranoias of your average Ron Paul supporter -- none of whom have been affected in the least by this report in any real-world way -- but I tend to stand with the men and women who keep us safe.
Especially when it comes to making sure they have complete and accurate information. The more they know, the more likely they are to both enforce the law appropriately, and to stay alive at the same time.