Militia movement diminished by McVeigh

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Tue May 8 06:02:54 PDT 2001

The Execution of Timothy McVeigh McVeigh's bomb shattered militia movement, too Passionate patriots fell victim to fear, boredom

Dale Young / The Detroit News/ May 6,,2001 "What this country needs is a good old-fashioned Waco ... That would put fear back in society," said Norm Olson.

Coming in The News

Today's report on the legacy of the Oklahoma City bombing is the first in a series of Detroit News articles leading up to Timothy McVeigh's May 16 execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Militias on the wane

The number of self-described patriot organizations operating in the United States has plummeted in recent years.

Year Organizations

1995 224

1996 858

1997 523

1998 435

1999 217

2000 194

Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

Dale Young / The Detroit News

Michigan Militia members crowd a Decker church for a broadcast of ABC's "Nightline" on April 26, 1995, a week after the Oklahoma City bombing.

By Ron French / The Detroit News

ALANSON -- Norm Olson stands alone in a room filled with guns, waiting for his troops to return. The Michigan Militia Wolverine Corps was one of the largest and most radical in the country. Last week, Olson disbanded the militia, a victim of political infighting, boredom, and restlessness with an apocalypse that never materialized.

"What this country needs is a good old-fashioned Waco, with 50 people dead on each side," Olson said. "That would put fear back in society. You need fear to create a militia."

That, Olson knows, isn't likely to happen soon. Militias that once feared attacks by federal agents were instead wounded by one man: Timothy McVeigh.

Since the Oklahoma City bombing, three-quarters of the nation's patriot groups have disbanded, and membership has dropped 80 percent. Thousands are in prison.

Most remaining militia groups bear little resemblance to the militant, pro-violence organizations that existed before the Oklahoma City bombing. Today, many militias are akin to Kiwanis with guns: They camp and target-practice on the weekends and believe in gun rights, but hold few of the anti-government beliefs of their predecessors.

McVeigh's scheduled execution this month brings to a "psychological close" the modern militia movement, Olson admits.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Michigan, where groups like Olson's spawned militias across the country and helped shape the views of McVeigh and co-conspirator and Decker native Terry Nichols.

"The movement that created (McVeigh) is fading away," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala., organization that tracks such groups. "Tens of thousands got frightened away or bored."

>From fear to fury

Patriot groups sprung up around the country in the mid-1990s, in the wake of the FBI's 1992 assault near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which killed the wife and son of separatist Randy Weaver, and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas. Eighty people, including 22 children, died in Waco.

Such groups, which emphasized gun rights and individual rights, feared that the federal government was planning to disarm citizens. Many in the groups believed the government was conspiring with the United Nations to take over the country.

On April 29, 1994, Olson was among 28 people who met in the woods near Brutus, Mich., to form a militia. Within two years, there were more than 800 such groups around the country. And Michigan was leading the way.

"We had all 83 counties up and running," Olson recalled. "It grew exponentially because it was an idea whose time had come. The seed was growing in a fertile soil of fear, whether it was black helicopters or cryptic messages on road signs.

"It was a social movement of people who were passionate about their beliefs that the government was abusing power. I compare it to the anti-war movement in the '60s."

Lloyd Meyer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, led four prosecutions against militia members, including one plot to assassinate Gov. John Engler and blow up the federal building in Grand Rapids.

"For some reason, Michigan became the petri dish for the modern militia movement," Meyer said. Fringe militia members "were a violent standoff waiting to happen."


On April 19, 1995, a Ryder truck loaded with explosives blew up outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. It was the deadliest act of terrorism carried out in the United States. While McVeigh was not a card-carrying member of the Michigan militia, he and Nichols had ties to the group and espoused many of the same anti-government beliefs.

"As soon as Oklahoma City happened and everyone saw pictures of bleeding babies, there was a real witch hunt," Olson said. Some militia members were fired from their jobs. Others were ostracized by neighbors and friends. Olson stepped down as pastor of a church.

"A lot of members left," Olson said. "They realized this wasn't paint-ball in the woods, that this was serious stuff."

Interest wanes

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI assigned 500 agents to investigate domestic terrorism. Other agencies, such as the IRS, formed their own domestic terrorism units.

Before Oklahoma City, militias had been viewed as "crazy, but slightly amusing," Potok said. "Afterward, law enforcement took tips (about possible terrorism) much more seriously."

Since the Oklahoma City bombing, Potok said, about 30 major domestic terrorism plots have been thwarted by police. Various plots targeted the FBI and IRS headquarters, three federal buildings, and a Texas propane gas facility next to an elementary school.

"Literally thousands went to prison in the second half of the 1990s, and tens of thousands were frightened away by the arrests," Potok said.

"People thought, 'My God, this movement really is producing people willing to blow up babies.' "

Others, he said, left "because they were tired of waiting around for a crisis that never arrived. They were being told constantly that the UN was coming to rape their grandma, and it never happened."

The last great moment for the militias ended Dec. 31, 1999. Many in the movement believed Y2K would be the beginning of anarchy and a race war.

"All of a sudden, everyone has three generators sitting in their garage and tons of canned beans in the basement," Olson said. "People started thinking, boy, things aren't as bad as we thought. The Clinton-Reno regime is gone, the black helicopters are gone, there aren't Russian soldiers hiding in the mines below Detroit. There was no more fear to motivate people."

Meanwhile, the militias were being splintered by infighting and becoming politically moderate. Olson was replaced as commander of his militia by Lynn Van Huizen, a moderate who cooperated with the FBI and kicked out members who were plotting to blow up highway intersections on the west side of Michigan. He brags of helping provide security when the traveling version of the Vietnam Memorial came to Muskegon, and calling in militia members to help search for a missing girl.

"Did Timothy McVeigh change the movement? Of course," Van Huizen said. Now, "we're just part of the community."

One moderate group split off and incorporated, taking the name Michigan Militia Inc. It has a Web site that includes dates of upcoming meetings at the Beehive restaurant in Wayne, as well as militia products, such as a "Ladies of Liberty" calendar featuring women with their guns.

"A lot of the groups that formed after Waco based on some extreme-belief conspiracy theories or Y2K just kind of dissolved," said Kristin Stoner, who runs the Web site and the "Ladies of Liberty" calendar for Michigan Militia Inc.

"Now, there's none of this mistrust of government and conspiracy ... it's more like camping and target practice."

'A dangerous world'

The unrepentant Olson raps the new militia for being "socially acceptable, politically correct and squeezably soft."

Yet Olson and those like him have fewer and fewer followers. His days are spent running a small gun shop attached to his house, and giving media interviews. For a BBC film crew in Alanson last week, Olson filled a milk jug with red Jello and pieces of white Styrofoam, so a fired bullet would simulate a head exploding. He makes a joke about his favorite red, white and blue being brain matter and skull fragments inside a blue UN helmet.

"People think I'm nuts, but ... there is still grave, grave danger," Olson said. "It (an Oklahoma City-size terrorist attack) will happen again. It may not be the militia. It may be someone putting anthrax in New York City to protest the fur industry. You have teen-agers going in and shooting up schools. Now age that teen-ager by 10 years and give him explosives and see what happens.

"It's become a dangerous world to live in. Tim McVeigh doesn't change that."

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