Morris Dees' "Gathering Storm"
April 26, 2000
Gathering Storm; by Morris Dees; HarperCollins, $24"I have had an all-too-close relationship with the type of fanatics who are seeking to exploit the militia movement. Because of my work against them, they have tried to kill me," writes Morris Dees in the introduction to his new book Gathering Storm (HarperCollins). "In 1983, they burned the office where I work. In 1984, they came on my property to shoot me. In 1986, they plotted to blow me up with a military rocket. In 1995, they tried to build a bomb like the one that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building to level my office. Twelve have been imprisoned for these crimes. Four await trial." If anyone has reason to be nervous about the growth of the militia movement in the United States, it's Dees, a civil rights attorney and co-founder of Alabama's Southern Poverty Law Center. But you won't find the kind of vindictiveness you'd expect in Gathering Storm. Dees separates the hate preachers and white supremacists from those who are simply irritated with Uncle Sam. "These militia members loved their country and believed in all that was outlined in the Constitution. They weren't haters, and they didn't want to associate with haters But it was clear, by the summer of 1994, that the links between the movement as a whole and the haters and racists of America were strong." Dees and his Militia Task Force, which has covertly and successfully gathered information from the inside, were so concerned that hate groups were infiltrating militias, he wrote Attorney General Janet Reno a letter six months before the Oklahoma City bombing warning her of the "mixture of armed groups and those who hate," calling it a "recipe for disaster." Gathering Storm expands on that letter and provides Americans with the wake-up call they perhaps didn't hear after Oklahoma City. Dees dispels myths, especially the one written in the New York Times following the blast suggesting it was simply the work of one disgruntled individual. Not even close, Dees argues. Chances are good, he proves, that Timothy McVeigh, the man charged with the crime, was in contact with leaders of the white supremacist movement (some of whom now suggest the bomb was planted by the Feds ). And Dees doesn't just look at the crimes of the past; he's watching what they're up to now. One of the latest developments (which has happened independently in three places, suggesting a central planning effort) is the militias sudden interest in keeping files on its enemies, including civil rights organizations like Dees' and government agencies. The SALUTE forms (an acronym for "size, activity, location, unit, time and equipment," information the forms call for) are being widely circulated. But why, Dees wonders, if the militias are only convened for self-defense. Dees argues that the Constitution, so often quoted by the militias, is really on the side of peace and order. "While the Constitution of the United States protects the right of people like William Pierce and Louis Beam [two white supremacist leaders] to say and write what they please, it does not give anyone the right to form a private army or to engage in military maneuvers in a secret cell It does not provide a constitutional right of individual gun ownership. Although some legal commentators maintain that past judicial decisions interpreting the Second Amendment in this manner are wrong, most scholars agree with the courts that the Constitution's "right to bear arms" applies only to members of official state militias acting in their official capacity, not to unregulated individual citizens." But Dees has found deaf ears when he tells law enforcement officials, as he has when he wrote letters to the attorneys general of most states, calling on them to enforce the law by not allowing paramilitary exercises by unregulated militias. Dees often tells audiences that he knows of no other nation that tolerates private armies that train with assault weapons and learn how to build bombs. Dees says many law enforcement officials simply don't understand the legal delineation between the right to associate and the so-called right to arm and train private armies. The attorney general of North Dakota wrote Dees that "it is inappropriate to label people based on group membership. We have to focus on behavior, not beliefs." Dees counters: "But engaging in paramilitary activity is 'behavior, not beliefs.' Banning private armies does not deprive anyone of their 'beliefs,' only their opportunity to wreak havoc." Dees also wonders how the American public and media would react if African-Americans in the inner cities began to form armies and train with assault weapons under the guise of protecting themselves from the government. Troubling as it is, Gathering Storm is a must-read (and a quick one) for anyone who believes the preservation of peace is paramount. Competing visions for the future are what this country is built on, but the writings of white supremacist William Pierce (whose Turner Diaries are suspected of being the blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing) offer insight to what kind of future those in the far-far-right really have in mind: "Those who speak against us," Pierce writes, "now should be looked at as dead men -- as men marching in lockstep toward their own graves -- rather than as persons to be feared or respected or given any consideration."