Militia Hearings

If Senator Arlen Specter had been half as hard on the militia movement as he was on Anita Hill, his recent Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the militias might have truly discredited the radical right. Instead, the inquiry became a soapbox for the "patriots" rather than the critical forum that was so badly needed. Aired live on CNN and CSPAN, the session--like past Congressional hearings on right-wing groups--will only bring the militias new recruits. True, Senators Max Baucus and Carl Levin opened the hearing with strongly worded denunciations of the militias. And federal and state law-enforcement officials unanimously concluded that the militias were "disturbing and dangerous." But the militia leaders who testified succeeded in portraying themselves as down-home patriots and beleaguered defenders of the Constitution. Specter erred by failing to invite civil rights groups and outside experts to testify about the racist and anti-Semitic agenda of many militia activists. He preferred to take center stage himself, was poorly prepared and greatly underestimated the rhetorical skills of the militia leaders. John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, claimed that the militias were nothing more than "a giant neighborhood watch," while his well-established links to hate groups like Aryan Nations--an outfit that teaches that Jews are satanic and blacks are subhuman--went unexposed. (Specter has a letter issued by Aryan Nations staff documenting Trochmann's close ties to the group, yet failed to question him about it.) And the presence of James Johnson, a utility company lineman from Columbus, Ohio, who is one of a handful of blacks in the movement, undermined charges of white supremacy that have hobbled the militias. The question the hearing failed to raise is this: Given the freedoms of the First Amendment and the embrace of the Second Amendment by militia proponents, what measures, if any, can be employed to prevent the creation of private armies of thousands of heavily armed right-wing fanatics intent on creating a white Christian republic? A good place to start the inquiry might have been the patchwork quilt of anti-paramilitary training laws in forty-one states. Specter dropped the ball by failing to invite state attorneys general and other experts to testify about why these laws are rarely, if ever, enforced. In the absence of a critical review, militia leaders like Norman Olson of Alanson, Michigan, were able to turn the tables on the panel by accusing the senators of representing "corruption in government." After bristling at the charges, Specter settled in to examine various conspiracy theories advocated by the militias and offered to go "one on one, here before Congress, on the record" with Olson to debate the single-bullet theory of the J.F.K. assassination. Senator Dianne Feinstein solicitously gave the militias ample opportunity to clear themselves of any connection to the Oklahoma City bombing when she asked, "Are there any circumstances in which an individual would be justified in bombing a building?" "No," came the unanimous answer. The task of holding truly comprehensive hearings into the militia movement now rests with Representative Charles Schumer and fifty seven other House members who are calling on Newt Gingrich and the Judiciary Committee to pick up where the Senate left off. If Gingrich & Co. refuse to hold hearings -- they prefer to focus on Waco instead -- Schumer has pledged to hold his own "public forum" to investigate the militias. Such a forum is badly needed.

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