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Patriot Movement Declining

For the fifth consecutive year, the antigovernment movement that produced American militias undergoes a major decline

Almost nine years ago, on a warm October day in Opelika, Ala., Americans got an early taste of the violence that was soon to come from the antigovernment "Patriot" movement.

On that day, in the parking lot of a local shopping center, a Floridian couple who were deeply steeped in the conspiracist world-view of the Patriots gunned down a police officer who had stopped to check on the welfare of the woman's 9-year-old son.

Lynda Lyon, then 45, and common-law husband George Sibley Jr., 51, killed Sgt. Roger Motley, 38, after the officer asked to see Sibley's license.

The murder was a harbinger of the violence that was soon to explode in the Patriot world, culminating in the deaths of 168 people in Oklahoma City.

Now, the May 10 execution of Lyon, who like Sibley was sentenced to die for the killing, may likewise serve to mark the continuing demise of the Patriot movement.

Eight years after it began, the Patriot movement — characterized by armed militias, wild conspiracy theories, a hatred of the federal government and government regulation, an overarching love for guns, and an occasionally strong dose of racism — is less than a fifth the size that it was at its peak, in 1996.

Battered by arrests, defections, and promises of a revolution that never seems to materialize, the movement today seems nearly moribund.

In its annual count, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project identified just 158 antigovernment Patriot groups that were active in 2001.

That is down 19% from the year before, when there were 194 such groups, and the fifth consecutive decline since the movement peaked with 858 groups in 1996. And even the current numbers seem to overstate Patriot activity, which for several years has been anemic at best.

As Patriots Decline, the Right Hardens
Several groups disappeared due to the legal troubles of their leaders.

  • Paul Giovanni Graham, leader of the Colorado State Defense Force Reserve, was arrested and charged with manufacturing and selling explosive devices;

  • Six staffers of the Christian Patriot Association, a publishing house, were charged with conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service; and

  • The main principals of Greater Ministries International Church, a Patriot-influenced organization, were finally sentenced to prison for their parts in an investment scam that netted close to $500 million.

This is not to suggest that the American radical right is diminishing.

In fact, the number of harder-line groups has been growing quite steadily since the early 1990s. The Intelligence Project counted 676 white supremacist and other hate groups that were active last year, and that number seems likely to keep on rising.

"We've seen a transformation in the kinds of groups on the radical right in the last few years," said Joe Roy, director of the Intelligence Project. "Overall, the movement today is harder line and much more explicitly racist."

The terrorist attacks of last Sept. 11 have reduced the movement's volatility. Many militia leaders, including some relative hard-liners, reacted to the deaths of some 3,000 Americans by rallying to the flag, or at least to their fellow Americans.

The Michigan Militia Corps-Wolverines, one of the first militias to appear in 1994, offered its support to President Bush and the Administration; like a number of other militias, it described itself as shocked when its offer was not taken up.

Jim Strode, leader of the New Mexico Militia, is trying to bring the American Constitutional Militia Network back to life to defend the country.

Even Norm Olson, former leader of a hard-line Michigan militia group, wants to use his few remaining followers to help defend against terrorism.

Body Bags in Queens
A much smaller contingent has treated the September attacks much like the militia movement treated the Oklahoma City bombing — they see it as part of a dark conspiracy, although it's unclear who the conspirators are or why they acted.

The Militia of Montana, the first major militia to appear in this country, questions nearly every aspect of the attack. In its Taking Aim newsletter, it claims that 20,000 body bags were delivered to Queens three weeks before the attack.

The same newsletter says:

A former Federal agent has informed us that many tall buildings in the United States are retrofitted with explosives to be detonated if a building were to slant 12 degrees or more. The logic behind this, we are told, is to stop collateral damage by preventing the domino effect.

[C]ount the puffs coming out of the right side of the bend in the South Tower. If these are not demolition charges to realign the structure ... please tell us what they are.

At the same time that the number of groups fell, the number of Patriot websites went up, from 155 in 2000 to 175 in 2001. But that may have reflected a retreat to cyberspace rather than an increase in propaganda efforts.

For one thing, fewer sites were connected to actual groups in 2001 than in 2000 (75, as opposed to 85), despite the fact that there were more sites overall in the later year.

What's more, the longer-term trend has been one of steady decline: There were 263 Patriot websites in 1999, which is still significantly more than the number recorded in 2001.

The militia movement that roiled America in the 1990s, despite not being explicitly tied to racist or anti-Semitic doctrines, produced a level of violence that was at times quite remarkable.

Even after the Oklahoma City attack by a bomber deeply steeped in Patriot ideology shocked the world, domestic terrorism from other supposed Patriots — people like Lyon and Sibley — continued through the decade.

Despite the fading of the movement that birthed Lyon, Sibley and Oklahoma City mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, the hardheaded politics of many of its principals remain.

There are few better examples of that than the case of Lynda Lyon, who went to her death rejecting any and all appeals and insisting that the entire U.S. court system is operating illegally.