Adrian Meyer was standing in a dusty hall of the Alfalfa County Fairgrounds in Cherokee, Okla., when I met him about five years ago. Clad in blue jeans and a feed store cap, Meyer looked confused. The federal government was coming after him, he said, for allegedly accepting federal crop insurance overpayments, and so he had made his way to this place.
Meyer — a wheat farmer who recently had lost the 1,000 acres his family had farmed since 1894 to the banks — was desperate.
Inside, the "Alfalfa County Common-Law Court" was in session. Looking as benign as a 4-H meeting or some country church social, about 40 folks had gathered to participate in a "trial" of Meyer's case — a hearing that lasted under 10 minutes.
In the end, the participants in this so-called court — a body with no real judge, no real jury and no legal standing whatsoever — declared the charges against Meyer had "no force." Meyer, they said, had been arrested by "criminal agents of Interpol."
Meyer left that August day a happy man, convinced that he had "asseverated" himself from the state and was not liable for taxes or other financial obligations.
I don't know what ever became of Meyer — if he went to prison on the federal charges or worked out some way to avoid that — but I do know this: Adrian Meyer was a dupe, just the kind of man who common-law courts — and the larger antigovernment "Patriot" movement — have hoodwinked into believing a false ideology.
'This is Not a Movie'
The same could be said of thousands who joined common-law courts, militias and other groups that made up the Patriot movement.
Certainly, many who came in were motivated by racism and anti-Semitism — the first thing that Darrell Frech, the man who convened the Alfalfa County Common-Law Court, did in explaining the reasoning of his "court" was to pull out a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery.
But thousands of others, motivated by issues like Meyer's fear and resentment of the government, came to the Patriot movement as innocents, earnestly believing all that they were told.
Today, as described in this issue of the Intelligence Report, the Patriot movement is a shadow of its former self, with a quarter as many groups operating as at the movement's peak in 1996.
Patriot groups have been beaten down by arrests, the defection of softer-core members, and the waning vigor of a movement that made many promises to people like Meyer but fulfilled none of them.
Clearly, the larger radical right in America is still vibrant. But Patriot groups, with their peculiar brand of conspiracist theorizing, are dwindling away.
It wasn't always so.
Four months before meeting Meyer, I stood a few yards from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as the last flames licked at the base of the bombed building — an attack that came not from a militia group, but from two men who clearly were enmeshed in the world of the radical right. It was a life-changing experience for all who witnessed it.
"My gut is twisting inside of me; I'm feeling sick to my stomach," nurse Sue Hull, who had watched the torn body of a 3-year-old pulled from the rubble, told me as she wept outside the building on the day after the bombing. "It weakens the person inside of you, it's so real. This is not a movie. It's a town. It's our home. ... This happened here, to our people, our country, in the middle of America."
And so did Waco, the 1993 siege that ultimately left more than 80 Branch Davidians — as well as four federal agents — dead. More than any other, this was the event that set the Patriot movement on fire, spurring thousands of Americans to join militias and other Patriot groups. But now even Waco is fading.
At a ceremony on April 19 — the seventh anniversary of the blaze that ended the 51-day siege — a crowd that included a handful of militiamen gathered on the site of the burned Waco compound. They came to dedicate a new Davidian church built with donations, to decry the federal government, and to mourn.
The need to mourn also drew Robert Rodriguez, the undercover federal agent who infiltrated the Davidian compound and who tried fruitlessly to warn his supervisors that the Davidians knew agents were coming when they staged their original raid.
Sporting emblems of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Rodriguez, who was there to pay his respects to his fallen comrades, was not initially welcomed by the crowd. But, in a moment that captured the fading of Waco-driven antagonisms, two Davidian supporters approached him.
"This is David Koresh's father," said one, according to an account by Lee Hancock of The Dallas Morning News. "He wanted to meet you."
Solemnly, the two men shook hands.
"I feel sorry for your loss," Rodriguez told the man identified as the father of the Davidian cult leader. "I feel sorry for y'all's loss," the man responded.
Rodriguez nodded. "I guess everybody has lost here," he said.