Waning militias avoid McVeigh

BLOOMFIELD, Ind. - Six years after Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Oklahoma City federal building and killed 168 people, the militia movement that shared his anger and mistrust of government is fading.

Across the country, hundreds of the military-style groups that formed with a common distrust of the government and a fascination with firearms have disbanded. Several that remain have begun working to change their image, and in southern Indiana, one of the few places where the movement still thrives, leaders of about 20 militia groups have promised law enforcement officials that they will stay away Monday, when McVeigh is scheduled to be put to death at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.

"We don't want to do anything to add to the irrational fears people might have that some militia members might react in some way to avenge McVeigh's death," said Roger Stalcup, a Bloomfield bail bondsman who oversees the Southern Indiana Regional Militia, an umbrella group. "Nothing could be further from the truth. He's not a hero to our movement and never has been."

Even in places like northern Michigan, once a seedbed for the militia movement, interest has faded. Norman Olson disbanded the Northern Michigan Regional Militia this year after members stopped appearing at meetings and training exercises. "It had dropped down to just a handful," Olson said.

But observers who have monitored the militia movement, including officials with the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, say the nation shouldn't be lulled by their image-building. Many former members have defected to join more radical hate groups.

"Americans should be worried about the radical right," said Mark Potok, editor of the center's Intelligence Report. "I think militias are becoming more insignificant; the action is with the radical right. And overall, we're looking at a movement that is more hard-line and more dangerous than the militia movement was in the 1990s."

According to the center, militia groups are at about a fifth of their former strength. In 1996, the center kept track of 858 so-called militia/patriot groups; today there are about 194, Potok said.

The militia movement began to pick up steam in 1993, when about 80 members of a sect called the Branch Davidians were killed during the federal siege on their compound near Waco, Texas. (Federal authorities had been told the sect was heavily armed and that the sect leader David Koresh was sexually abusing members' children.)

Membership in Olson's group shot up, and in the remote woods of northern Michigan he began gathering members for martial arts and firearms training on weekends.

"We tried to bring these highly emotional people with their own agendas into the team," said Olson, who owns a gun shop in Alanson, Mich. "They could find some security within our numbers."

But since the Oklahoma City bombing, militia involvement has dropped precipitously for a variety of reasons, Potok said. Many members grew tired of preparing for crises that never arrived, most notably the doomsday predicted for Jan. 1, 2000.

That "dawn was bright and sunny, just like Dec. 31," Potok said. "That was a big turnoff. We saw in the patriot publications many letters to the editor saying, 'You made us look like fools."'

Others had left the movement after the bombing - which killed a number of children in day care - fearing they would be viewed as brethren of McVeigh, who shared their anti-government views. Others feared a government clampdown on the movement.

Indeed, a clampdown did occur, Potok said. Thousands of militia members were jailed for weapons violations or tactics such as filing phony liens against government officials and impersonating judges. Defections to more radical, hate-based groups also hurt militia membership, Potok said.

Now, when Stalcup's group, the Greene County Militia, meets monthly, members discuss "what kind of PR events we want to put on our calendar," Stalcup said. On weekends the group still gathers in the woods to run obstacle courses and shoot target practice, but Stalcup said the training no longer is about readying for a showdown.

Yet that kind of restraint is hard to gauge. Olson said he longs for the day when another government debacle like the federal siege near Waco gives militias the call they need to rise up and re-energize.

Such sentiments worry observers such as Penny Weaver, director of community affairs at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"They are a shadow of what they used to be," she said, but "it's still important for us to keep an eye on them."

"We don't want to do anything to add to the irrational fears people might have that some militia members might react in some way to avenge McVeigh's death."