Skip to main content Accessibility
The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

While the Patriot Movement Fades, Other Extremists Come to Forefront

Report editor Mark Potok discusses the waning of the Patriot movement as convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh faces execution.

In the end, he confessed.

Six years after carrying out the attack that left 168 Oklahomans dead and a nation forever changed, Timothy McVeigh has decided to let America know — indeed, to boast — that he built the 7,000-pound bomb that leveled the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.

Just weeks away from death in a federal execution chamber, McVeigh has had his story — his version of his life and motivations — told in a brand new book.

It's not clear how much light American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing, written by two reporters from McVeigh's home town, will shed on the bombing. The book was attacked almost immediately as a naïve and even laudatory treatment of the deadliest domestic terrorist in American history, and it certainly seems to take McVeigh at his word on every important point.

But even as it shrugs off the possibility of a larger conspiracy, the book does confirm one key point: Tim McVeigh was a product of the most virulent strain of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement.

His rage was fueled by the infamous standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. He was deeply enmeshed in the Patriot-riddled gun culture, attending some 80 gun shows by his own estimation. He read the gamut of Patriot literature, taking in all kinds of conspiracy theories and identifying himself with the Founding Fathers.

He had definite racist leanings, at one point briefly joining a Ku Klux Klan group. He once considered forming a militia, and even wrote, in early 1995, "I was preaching and 'passing out' before anyone had ever heard the words 'patriot' and 'militia.'"

As Patriots Fade, Others Arise
Now, on May 16, McVeigh faces death. His execution by lethal injection, along with possibly bringing some closure to thousands of Oklahoma City survivors, will mark the fading away of the particular milieu from which he sprang.

The latest annual count by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project finds that the number of Patriot groups declined in 2000 for the fourth straight year, bringing the total to less than a quarter of its all-time high in 1996.

Attendance at militia events is down. Many key players in the movement have quit or been sent to prison. Fury at the gun control laws passed in the 1990s, which did much to fuel the Patriots, has cooled.

McVeigh and his movement are entering the shadows.

None of this is to suggest that the radical right in the United States is going away or even shrinking. On the contrary, there is strong evidence that the number of explicitly white supremacist and other hate groups has grown since the Oklahoma City bombing. Indeed, a recent Center count put the number of "hate groups" at more than 600. Ethnic nationalism is swelling, and the currents of hate seem more dangerous than ever.

'Who is the Traitor?'
But the Patriot movement — that particular expression of the radical antigovernment right that was characterized by citizen militias, vigilante "common-law" courts and strident paramilitarism — is fading. The bloody uprising that McVeigh hoped to inspire never occurred.

As Ruby Ridge and Waco — the seminal events of the Patriot world — slip into history, the radical right in the United States is evolving into new forms. It is more Nazified, more taken with racist versions of neo-Pagan religions, more anti-capitalist and, in its most "mainstream" forms, more successful at getting a hearing from the citizenry. And it is also more open to large-scale violence.

That last may be the real legacy of Tim McVeigh.

In American Terrorist, McVeigh speaks clinically of the 19 children he murdered as "collateral damage" that unfortunately distracted the public from his antigovernment message.

He explains that one reason he chose the Murrah Building was that its location afforded photographers an unobscured photo opportunity. And he speaks unapologetically of the large "body count" that he needed in order to ensure sufficient publicity for his act.

"To these people in Oklahoma who lost a loved one, I'm sorry, but it happens every day," McVeigh tells the book's authors. "You're not the first mother to lose a kid, or the first grandparent to lose a grandson or granddaughter."

A better summation came from prosecutor Larry Mackey during closing arguments in McVeigh's 1997 trial. "Who are the patriots?" Mackey demanded, glancing angrily at McVeigh. "And who is the traitor?"