Militia groups fell by half in 1999, marking the dwindling away of a movement that peaked four years earlier.
On Jan. 1, 1994, the Militia of Montana, the nation's first major militia group, was officially inaugurated in Noxon, kicking off a movement that would grow wildly over the next few years.
Today, more than six years later, the antigovernment "Patriot" movement of which militias were the most prominent part is dwindling away. Beaten down by arrests, the defection of hundreds of soft-core supporters and the drift of hard-liners into racist hate groups or the underground, the number of Patriot groups fell in 1999 to a quarter of its all-time high in 1996.
In many ways, the end of the millennium symbolized the petering out of the Patriot movement — although not of the larger radical right from which it sprang.
In its latest annual count, the Intelligence Project tallied a total of 217 Patriot groups — generally defined as radical antigovernment groups that oppose the "New World Order" and subscribe to a variety of conspiracy theories — that were active in 1999.
That was half the 1998 total of 435 Patriot groups, and a drop of more than 75% from the 858 groups that swelled the movement during 1996.
"The so-called Patriot movement is a shadow of its former self," says Joe Roy, director of the Intelligence Project.
"Many of the less committed have left, and hundreds of others have been arrested and imprisoned on a variety of charges. Militias are less active now than at any time since they appeared. But the radical right is not going away. Instead, right-wing extremists are increasingly joining race-based hate groups or taking up 'lone wolf' type terrorist activity."
When Patriots Flourished
Not so long ago, the Patriot movement was red hot.
Anger over gun control, the growing power of the federal government, and standoffs with law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, led tens of thousands to join Patriot groups, particularly militias.
Thousands more flooded into "common-law" courts — vigilante courts set up by people who believed they could "asseverate" themselves from government and not be liable for taxes. Publishing houses specializing in the far-out conspiracism that typifies Patriot groups sprouted around the country.
Largely because Patriot groups presented themselves as nonracist — even though most Patriot ideology derives directly from white supremacist groups of the 1980s — they were for a time remarkably successful at recruiting.
Even the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — with the ideological ties of its perpetrators to the militia movement — did not slow Patriot growth. Within weeks of the attack, Patriots were working to deny even ideological connections between the militia movement and the bombing.
Instead, they portrayed the attack as having been carried out by the federal government, possibly using McVeigh as an unwitting patsy as part of its plot. The idea, Patriot conspiracists argued, was to so frighten good Americans that they would accept passage of draconian anti-terrorism laws.
But hot social movements like this one cannot last forever. The human energy that drives them simply is unable to sustain itself for very long, rarely more than a decade or so.
That was true of the civil rights movement, which was winding down even before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was also true of the radical right in the 1980s, when the anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus raged through the Midwest organizing distressed farmers but petered out toward the end of the decade.
Crackdowns and Changing Allegiances
The reasons for the decline of Patriot groups include:
Loss of energy. Many would-be revolutionaries have gone home to their jobs and families. They're too bored, too tired, too worried about doing possible jail time. They're getting older and less interested in taking up arms.
The farm crisis that propelled many into the arms of the far right is basically over. Many of the most wrenching dislocations from the Rust Belt crisis are fading into memory.
Law Enforcement Crackdowns. Since Oklahoma City, virtually every major law enforcement agency has put domestic terrorism on the front burner. The FBI added close to 500 counter-terrorism agents.
At the same time, close to 20 state legislatures have passed new laws or strengthened old ones to punish common-law crimes like filing false liens and "impersonating" public officials. Hate crimes are being punished more severely.
The result is that hundreds of extremists — or, more likely, thousands — have been sent to prison, including key leaders.
Changing allegiances. Many people have left Patriot groups to join harder-line hate groups, of which there were 457 in 1999. Others have been pulled away by the increasing number of "mainstream" groups taking up race-based issues.
The Internet. To some extent, Patriots seem to have retreated to cyberspace. The Intelligence Project counted 263 Patriot web sites active in 1999 up 15 from the 248 sites tallied in 1998.
But the rise is a small one — in fact, it mirrors the rise in the number of all kinds of sites on the Net.
'I Was Tricked'
Today, the Militia of Montana — the group that in one sense got the militia movement rolling — is hardly a militia at all. Instead, it has become little more than a for-profit supplier of militia supplies and propaganda.
Overall, there were just 68 militias operating in 1999, down from 171 the year before. And the number of common-law courts — groups that have borne the brunt of law enforcement efforts — fell from 31 in 1998 to just four in 1999.
The decline of the Patriot movement was also symbolized starkly in the millennial date change.
For more than a year, Patriots had predicted all manner of mayhem — from the beginning of the Biblical end-times, to the collapse of Western civilization due to the Y2K computer bug, to imposition of martial law.
In the event, nothing untoward occurred — no Armageddon, no worldwide collapse, no concentration camps. And that did not sit well with many Patriot sympathizers, men and women who had been urged repeatedly to prepare for the coming hard times.
"Why did I attend all those preparedness shows and consider building an underground bunker in my backyard?" wrote the anonymous author of a letter to Media Bypass, a periodical popular in the movement.
"What am I to do with the thousands of dollars I was tricked into spending on preparing for the Y2K bug? The community of patriots were the loudest in proclaiming that the world would come to a halt when the clock struck 12. Well, it struck. And time marched on.
"Thanks a lot," the letter-writer concluded, expressing a sentiment that seems widely shared. "I hope I am not the only one who feels foolish and let down."