The January 6th Committee last week heard testimony about the communications between allies of former President Trump and members of far-right militia groups, including the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Militia Movements,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the political ambiguity of American militias, from Daniel Shays’ 1786 farmers’ rebellion, to the tight-knight fraternal militias of the 1890s, to the rise of right-wing “Patriot” groups in the 1990s. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – a turning point in the modern militia movement – Congress explored several overlapping methods for stemming anti-government violence in a set of politicized hearings.
On April 19th, 1995, anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck packed with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At 9:02 AM, the truck detonated, killing 168 people, including 19 children at a daycare near the blast’s epicenter. Police caught McVeigh speeding sixty miles outside of Oklahoma City.
Concurrently, FBI agents raided a farm in Decker, Michigan, where McVeigh had stayed in the months before the bombing. The compound belonged to James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols, who had helped McVeigh plan the attack.
Press reports quickly tied the Nichols Brothers and McVeigh to the growing Michigan Militia. Even the date of the bombing seemed inflected by militia concerns: The blast came on the second anniversary of the Waco siege, in which federal agents raided the cultish Branch Davidian religious compound in Texas and a resultant fire killed over 80 people.
Waco had become a flash point for the Michigan group and many of the other estimated 868 home-grown paramilitary groups that had emerged across the country over the previous two decades, encompassing over 100,000 militia members in at least 30 states.
Four days after the Oklahoma City bombing, on April 23rd, journalist Leslie Stahl – on location in Michigan reporting on militias – interviewed President Clinton via video linkup on 60 Minutes. Stahl highlighted the pervasiveness of armed anti-government groups: “Mr. President, there are tens, maybe more – tens of thousands of men and women dressing up on weekends in military garb going off for training because they’re upset about Waco…We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people in this country who are furious at the federal government for what you say is irrational, but they believe it.”
Clinton responded by both condemning militia violence and emphasizing the rights of Americans: “They have a right to keep and bear arms. They have a right to put on uniforms and go out on the weekends. They do not have the right to kill innocent Americans. They do not have the right to violate the law. And they do not have the right to take the position that if somebody comes to arrest them for violating the law, they’re perfectly justified in killing them.”
Clinton also pushed for the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act, an administration proposal introduced before the bombing that was sponsored by New York Democratic Representative Chuck Schumer in the House and by Delaware Senator Joe Biden and South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle in the Senate. The bill proposed making all forms of domestic terrorism a federal crime. Over the following days, Clinton also advocated hiring 1,000 new law enforcement officers, placing traceable chemicals in popular bomb-making materials, and giving the FBI easier access to phone records in terrorism cases.
The President’s calls for actions resounded throughout Congress, where the role of militias soon dovetailed with other hot-button issues, from internet regulation to gun control.
The reckoning was led by Republican Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information. On the day after Clinton’s 60 Minutes interview, Specter excoriated the President and the Department of Justice for what he perceived as their lassitude toward militia groups: “I don’t think President Clinton was very clear when he talked about paramilitary groups,” Specter critiqued. “He said, in essence…that they were all within their rights, and they may not be. I think there are some danger signals.”
Specter’s biography made him a provocative force in the militia debate. As a young lawyer working for the Warren Commission, Specter postulated the “single-bullet theory,” an interpretation of the JFK Assassination that ruled out a second shooter by contending that a single bullet wounded both President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, before a second fatal shot at the President from the same assailant. The theory was long decried by conspiracists–many of whom were themselves militia members–as an overly-convenient explanation for a lone gunman.
Upon his election to the Senate in 1980, Specter became known for his legalistic and often-combative style during hearings. In 1991, he weathered particular controversy for his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill. After an especially confusing volley of queries, Specter accused Hill of “flat-out perjury.”
Specter survived reelection in 1992, however, and announced shortly before Oklahoma City that he was launching an ultimately ill-fated run for president. Specter’s rhetoric, honed with his top strategist Roger Stone, focused on fighting “the intolerant right” through a vision of the GOP that was pro-choice and ambivalent toward Evangelicals.
Most Republicans – including House Speaker Newt Gingrich – did not seem particularly eager to hold public hearings about militias, whose animus toward big government cleaved more to the Right than the Left.
Specter, however, had no such qualms. First, Specter set future Subcommittee hearings on Waco and Ruby Ridge – the 1992 stand-off between an Idaho survivalist and federal agents that also served as a rallying cry for the modern militia movement. “I think the way to deal with a lot of the anger out there is to have the congressional inquiries on Waco and Idaho, which are long overdue,” Specter said.
On May 11th, he used his Subcommittee to open high-profile hearings on the use of the internet in teaching militias dangerous combat skills, featuring First Amendment experts and America Online’s director of government affairs, William Burrington. “A variety of hate groups and militias use the Internet to gain adherents, organize and rally support,” Specter opened.
The Senator zoomed in on incendiary texts, including the 93-page Big Book of Mischief, a 1991 bomb-making text often downloaded from the emergent Dark Web. He also called out the Militia of Montana’s manual, which included instructions for stockpiling weaponry.
Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein led the charge for stricter internet regulations of violent materials, sharing that her own San Francisco home had been pipe-bombed in 1975 by the radical New World Liberation Front. “I have a hard time with people using our First Amendment rights to teach others to go out and kill,” Feinstein declared.
Specter’s focus was resulting in some bipartisanship support for a crackdown on militias and extremist groups. On June 7th, the Senate overwhelmingly passed, 91-8, the Comprehensive Terrorism Prevention Act of 1995. The $1.8 billion Act incorporated many of the initial administration proposals from the Omnibus bill and benefited from a spirited conservative boost from Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
Yet despite the broad Republican support for anti-terrorism measures, Representative Schumer loudly contended that the GOP was uncomfortable with discussing the particular violence of militias. In late May, Schumer led a group of 61 Democratic lawmakers in writing an anguished letter to Gingrich: “Could it be that some in the GOP refuse to hold hearings on paramilitary militias for fear of alienating the right fringe of the party?”
In early June, Schumer reached back out to Gingrich with a press statement: “Newt Gingrich should not keep his head in the sand,” Schumer said. “It’s not a question of left and right.”
Specter again took up the mantle for the Republicans. On June 15th, he spearheaded a hearing with testimony from five militia leaders and five law enforcement agents tasked with policing them.
The enforcement officials came first, offering a somber recitation of the threats they felt from increasingly well-armed and angry militias. “Federal and local enforcement personnel have been threatened, harassed, assaulted and shot” by militia groups, said James L. Brown of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Brown also detailed a growing conspiracy theory picked up by law enforcement that the Oklahoma City bombing had been a Clinton-planned false flag operation.
When the five militia leaders took the stand, however, the tension quickly spiked. Norman Olson, the erstwhile leader of the Michigan Militia, showed up in camouflage gear. Specter quickly zoomed in on Olson, asking him repeatedly if he could “understand” a justification for the Oklahoma City bombing.
Olson attempted to deflect before exploding at Specter: “You’re trying to make us out to be something we’re not. We’re opposed to racism and hatred. We stand against corruption. Many of us are coming to the conclusion you represent corruption and tyranny.”
Specter did not take the corruption accusation calmly. He fired back: “I want your ideas fully exposed. I want your ideas compared to mine, and I want the American public to judge whether you’re right or I’m right. I don’t take lightly your saying that I represent corruption.”
James Johnson, a Black militia leader and utility lineman from Columbus, Ohio, passionately criticized characterizations of militias as racist. “This is the civil rights movement of the ‘90s. We’re not baby killers, we’re baby boomers. We’re not terrorists, we’re taxpayers. When people say that this movement is for angry white men, I say, if blacks had always had guns, we wouldn’t have been slaves.”
Wisconsin Democratic Senator Herb Kohl joined Specter on the offensive, questioning both Olson and Bob Fletcher, the founder of the Militia of Montana, on their conspiratorial views. Kohl took Olson to task for his contention that the United States was responsible for the March 20th, 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 14 people. Olson had told the press he believed that the Japanese government may have orchestrated Oklahoma City as revenge. Olson held fast to his interpretation, inviting Committee members to view forty pages of documents that attested to the supposed clandestine conflict.
Kohl also hit Fletcher on his claim that the U.S. was responsible for a spate of tornadoes that had plagued the Midwest. “You are saying that the Government has created weather-tampering techniques so that the ‘New World Order’ will be able to starve millions of Americas and control the rest?” Fletcher was also resolute: “At this point in time, we have all the documents to prove it, and if you think that 85 tornadoes takes place in the middle of our growing area by simultaneous accident, I’m sorry.”
Schumer was not satisfied with Specter’s hearing, arguing that the focus on militia members actually helped them to launder their image. “It quickly disintegrated into a soapbox for the wacky right,” he told the press. He also continued to insist that Republicans were stonewalling more responsible examinations of the threat, saying, “Many in the Republican Party have become mealy mouthed mollifiers of militias.”
On July 11th, Schumer hosted his own forum, focused on the victims of militia intimidation and violence. Schumer heard testimony from Karen Matthews, a clerk-recorder in Stanislaus County, California who was severely beaten by militia members after she refused to lift a $416,000 tax lien against one of them. “The beating has changed my normal existence dramatically,” Matthews revealed. “I carry a gun at all times…I never imagined I’d carry a gun.”
Martha Bethel, a Western Montana city judge, described being incessantly threatened by militias after she tried to pass a local bill making threatening a public official a felony. “On two occasions I had my children live with their dad for a week at a time,” Bethel admitted. “I would like to spare them the terror of seeing mom kidnapped.”
And Ellen Gray, an officer of the Pilchuck Audubon Society in Everett, Washington, offered perhaps the most poignant illustration of how militia violence and the corrosion of democracy interacted. After she had supported government wetlands protections during a County Council meeting, militia members had pulled out a noose and said, “We have a militia of 10,000, and if we can’t beat you at the ballot box, we’ll beat you with a bullet.”
Hearings into Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the threat of militias would continue on long after the immediate shock of Oklahoma City. As the January 6th hearings have shown, however, the threats that Congress rancorously examined 27 years ago never fully subsided.
For more on the modern militia movement, read Daniel Levitas’ 2004 The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. And for a further dose of Specter, check out his 2000 autobiography Passion for Truth: From Finding JFK’s Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton.
And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine’s deep dives into history:
- ‘Dry Up This Vast Reservoir’: Saturday Night Specials and the 1972 Gun Control Battle
- ‘Some Startling Disclosures’: Herman and Betty Talmadge and the 1970s Political Alcohol Reckoning
- ‘Liberty Cannot Bloom Amid Hate’: The Retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Rightward Drift of the Supreme Court