The April 12, 2010 issue of Newsweek featured a a graphic on page 14 showing (using bullet icons) the number of militias in the United States, by year. Interestingly, the graphic was titled”The arc of American Hate.”
Assuming Newsweek’s data is correct, militias hit their peak in 1996 with well over 300 in existence. The number of militias dropped dramatically in 1997 and they declined even more until more or less stabilizing during the Bush presidency. The number of militias began to swing upwards again in 2009, with a bit over 100 in existence (according to Newsweek).
While I found the numbers interest, I found the title even more interesting. It seems to be based on the assumption that the militias are hate groups and that their rise and decline is a measure of hate in America.
While some militias are clearly hate groups, condemning them all as hate groups seems to somewhat of a hasty generalization. Also, as far as the arc of hate goes, it is not clear that the rise and fall of militias measures hate in America. Of course, it could be taken to be a sign of a specific sort of view, namely the distrust of the central government that seems to be a major tenet of most militias.
However, the militias dropped off considerably during the Bush years, despite the fact that these years also saw a considerable increase in the powers of the central government (the Patriot Act, for example). If militia membership were driven primarily by the fear of a strong central state, then membership should have started increasing.
Perhaps the lack of expansion was due, in part, to the impact of 9/11 and the following wars: Americans, even those prone to being the type to join militias, were pulling together in the face of a common enemy.
Yet, despite the fact that we still face common threat, the militias spiked in 2009. This might mark the exhaustion of the post 9/11 unity, or it might also be due to an obvious factor: the election of Obama.
Obama has been cast as the sort of person the stereotypical militia member fears. As examples, Obama has been cast as a non-American, a Muslim and an intellectual.
Also, his alleged and actual policies and views are also no doubt very threatening to such people. As examples, Obama has been presented as having a socialist/Marxist/fascist/Muslim agenda, an anti-gun agenda, and so on. Pundits and politicians have also really stepped up the fear mongering and accusations about Obama and no doubt some folks find this very scary.
Since militias seem to be based on a certain type of fear, it is hardly shocking that their numbers are rising, just as they did during the Clinton administration.
Militias persisted during the Bush administration, perhaps because there are people who fear the central state, regardless of whether this state is seen as more left or right leaning. However, militias clearly spike during times when the president is seen as being more left leaning. After all, such a president is more likely to enact anti-gun legislation and their diplomatic attempts seem to be more likely interpreted as attempts to form a world government (a major worry of some militia members).
If the Clinton pattern is a good indicator, then we should expect an increase in militia groups and we should expect the possibility of domestic terrorism and other criminal acts being committed by some members of the more extreme groups.
Naturally, as the government steps up efforts to police such militias, this will create greater resentment and perhaps actually increase their membership. While some people might be tempted to lump all militias together under the umbrella of hate groups, this is a mistake and can actually contribute to radicalizing people.
Far more significantly, botched and extreme attempts to “deal” with the militias would also have serious consequences. After all, one likely causal factor in the militia spike of the Clinton era was the bungled raid on the the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
Hopefully, some lessons have been learned about how not to deal with militias and the Obama administration will be able to handle the rising militias better than Clinton did. This would require being able to deal with militias that are acting in a criminal and dangerous manner properly yet avoid acting in ways that actually serve to create more such dangerous groups.