Hate Group Expert Daniel Levitas Discusses Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity Movement and More

An interview with an expert on the Posse Comitatus

IR: Then came the birth of the modern Patriot movement. How did that take off?

LEVITAS: When the militias first began to appear, one of the principal issues they used to recruit followers was gun control. The earliest meetings of some militia groups in Montana were sparked by right-wing Christian Patriot activists, many of whom had come out of the Posse movement.

They used issues like gun control to hold public meetings which attracted hundreds of people, along with themes like environmental regulation and concerns about the United Nations and America being a sovereign nation.

That's one of the reasons the Posse has been so successful. It has used a range of issues to fuel its own metamorphosis and growth. It's true that the Posse and other hate groups have benefited from economic distress. But that is not necessarily the driving force behind the movement.

People are recruited into these groups and movements based heavily on the power of ideas.

There's a consistency of theme and form and message in today's so-called Christian Patriot movement. Ten years before the Montana Freemen were printing sight drafts on their computers, you had Posse members using the same kinds of fake financial instruments to help farmers supposedly pay off their agricultural debts.

The religious philosophy the Freemen embraced was the same old, tired, bigoted idea that Gale and Wickstrom and Stockheimer paraded up and down rural America beginning in the 1970s. Today's militia movement has nothing new or original in it.

IR: The Posse Comitatus was explicitly racist and anti-Semitic, but much of the modern Patriot movement is not. What percentage of so-called Patriots are racist?

LEVITAS: If we were to count those people who regularly attend common-law court meetings, who are subscribers to one or more of the radical right's publications, who have traveled to a major conference or survivalist expo and who have taken some kind of step to embrace this philosophy — non-payment of taxes or giving up their driver's license, for instance — I would say that practically every one of those people are racist or anti-Semitic, whether they admit it or not. They are by definition hard-core followers.

But there are thousands of other people who have come to a meeting now and then based on the appeal of issues that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or racism. The success of the Patriot movement is not based on an up-front appeal to race hatred. It's based on an overt appeal to broadly attractive political and social issues.

IR: So where is the movement at now?

LEVITAS: The movement has become more militant and the death toll has increased. It's truly ready and willing to wage war against the government. Previously, there was a clearer division between the "patriotic" Posse Comitatus and the revolutionary neo-Nazi movement.

Over the past 10 years, that distinction has faded. One of the most dangerous trends we've seen is the transformation of the Posse movement into something today that is more willing to embrace an armed and violent revolutionary philosophy.

IR: How can law enforcement deal with this radicalism?

LEVITAS: That is an important question, but I think more important is how this movement affects the society we live in. How does it affect race relations? How does it challenge the operation of democracy? What potential do these ideas have to reach a broader audience? In the early 1970s, hard-core opposition to affirmative action really was limited to the purview of the Klan.

It was not commonly held that affirmative action was an affront to white people. Now that idea has broad appeal.

Unfortunately, not that many people have gone out and organized in communities around bread- and-butter issues in rural America. When the residents of a town in Montana are looking for a political outlet for their ideals and frustrations, if the militia is ready and waiting with pamphlets and videotapes, it's only a matter of time before a number of people go in that direction.

You have to have some kind of positive magnet out there, a really vigorous alternative. People don't have to be suffering or in bankruptcy to need this. They might just need to improve their quality of life, to express their ideals. Until such a movement develops and takes root in rural America, the so-called Christian Patriots will have a captive audience.

Human rights groups have their work cut out for them for many years to come. That's for sure.