Sometimes, things happen that almost immediately crystallize an aspect of one’s life, splitting it into a time before the event and after. Your parent takes a job in a sparsely populated Western state and moves the whole family. A plane crashes with a family member on board. You drive a U-Haul truck from Oregon to Massachusetts without a job to start post-college life with your new spouse. You buy a home. You take a trip to India.
Some other events are just as important but only in retrospect. These are subtle things, a turning of the tide. A high school student teaches you a bit of French in fourth grade and inspires a life-long interest in la belle langue and the nation of France. You go to camp a couple years later where you bicycle a couple hundred miles around Iowa and realize that cycling is the activity that you really love. You appropriate the family camera on a trip to Yellowstone and pick up the habit. You ride the 80 bus from Watertown to Cambridge and start to give up most of your conservative political views as you see that the working people (of which you are one) need more opportunity than they’re getting. The tragic, brutal death of a young gay man in your home state makes you rethink some of the other bullshit ideas you had.
Another thing that slowly changed me was the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building fifteen years ago yesterday.
I should note that I was in my second year at Grinnell in the spring of 1995. I loved Grinnell, but I felt like I lived in a cave. Very little news made it my way. That is, I consumed very little of it. I remember the Republican revolution of 1994 — I may have been one of the few students there who didn’t really mind it. I seem to recall there was (still) a war in the Balkans. And the farm bill was rewritten. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know what was going in the world; I just wasn’t very connected to the media at the time.
McVeigh and Nichol’s act of terrorism really struck close to home — figuratively, of course. At the time, I still considered myself a Wyomingite. Like many people in Wyoming I felt that the federal government was a more-or-less foreign, colonial power. DC is almost 2000 miles from the Equality State, but unelected officials there ultimately control how most of the land in the mountains and plains can be used. With only three electoral votes, our Congressional delegation might have had disproportionate power relative to our population, but we felt marginalized on the national stage. It seemed like a lot of the issues that mattered to us didn’t matter to the rest of the country, and vice versa. People on the coasts and in the cities wanted to take away the guns we (truly believed) we relied on for our protection. We might not have had “Live Free or Die” on our license plates — we had a broncobuster — but we felt like we actually lived what New Hampshire was trying to claim.
I knew a guy — a sort of family friend/hanger-on — who taught me about the militia mindset. He spent a lot of time at the gun shop. (I should say one of the gun shops, for there were several.) And he would tell us what he heard and (thus) believed. He was a real life Dale Gribble. The government had designs on our guns and our liberty. For reasons I didn’t understand, the Clinton Justice Department was training a secret NATO army using black helicopters to impose the “one world government” under the auspices of the UN. The Federal Reserve was part of an ancient secret society that finally surfaced at the Bretton Woods summit in the 40s; they too were part of this enormous plot, and at the appointed time this unelected body would devalue the US dollar for their nefarious ends. Ruby Ridge and Waco and Vince Foster’s suicide were visible corroboration of the dozens of other insidious events for anyone who would just bother to connect the dots. He buried guns and ammunition in PVC pipe in the backyard so that once ATF agents came to take his “sacrificial” firearms away, he would be ready to carry on the fight. He stocked extra food and claimed to have survival skills. And he “knew people” who claimed to have shot down a helicopter that was scaring their cattle on BLM land. But the “real” militia action was always over the border in Montana, where the crazy people live.
(If it weren’t for the talk about aliens, it was almost conceivable as an alternate reality. After graduating college I watched “X-Files.” And I felt like I had heard all of the stories already. The guy I knew was a wannabe Western version Fox Mulder, uncovering the evil machinations of the Cigarette Smoking Man. After my first year working in tech support where I frequently helped people working in the defense industry on government contracts, it became crystal clear to me that the very idea of a “massive government conspiracy” crumbles because it’s just not possible to hold it all together secretly. Even people working on secret things need help completing their part of the secret.)
So when a couple of “lone wolves” put an actual plan into effect, I was stunned. I knew that some people believed the government wanted to make them slaves to its bureaucratic will. I knew that there were a lot of well-armed, slightly off-balance people out there. And I knew that there was a lot of angry — or, at the very least, agitated — rhetoric. (“Talking treason” the guy I knew liked to say.) But I didn’t think anyone would actually do this sort of thing. If I were old enough to remember the Weathermen, it wouldn’t have been so surprising.
After the bombing — which thankfully didn’t actually touch my life directly — just about anything associated with the militia point of view rapidly lost whatever bit of Revolutionary-era-throwback legitimacy I had carved out for it in my mind. These are modern times; there’s no need to “water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants,” because we are so far away from tyranny. Government wasn’t the problem; it was the bulwark against domestic terrorists. Gun legislation might not always be consistent; but it seems like a necessity. There should be no such thing as a “well-regulated militia” except as run by the states.
Above all, the tremendous amount of lost life, the needless deaths, and the premeditated brutality of the Oklahoma City bombing shows us the danger of unchecked bullshit. I don’t claim to know what was in McVeigh’s mind, though I hear he was upset about Waco and Ruby Ridge (which were unfortunate and needless in their own way). But the idea that these events herald despotism makes no more sense than the gun shop hearsay that the family friend shared with us.
Looking at American history, we see that our form of government is more durable than we let on. We have never had periods of despotism. The Republic has never fallen, although it did crack apart from within during the Civil War because of or own inconsistent ideas of “liberty.” Neither fascism nor communism — the two greatest external ideological threats to democracy — took hold. (The methods of prophylaxis — Palmer raids, strike-busting, Pinkertons, McCarthyism, widespread FBI surveillance — may even have been worse than what the forces of stability were trying to prevent.) We have survived wars and contested elections and depressions. The historical power behind the idea of America is the strongest argument against militia activity.
In fact, militias have only gotten us into trouble since they peeled us off from the British Empire. (And depending on your point of view, maybe even then too.) Shay’s Rebellion helped destroy the first post-Revolutionary confederation. Armed white civilians moving into the interior of the continent committed ethnic cleansing and spread race-based tyranny. John Brown’s raids and the Missouri troubles hastened the Civil War, while the South Carolina militia’s siege on Ft. Sumter actually started it. The Ku Klux Klan began as anti-Reconstruction civilian militia. The Gilded Age’s corporate militias killed working men and their families. The counterculture’s left-wing terrorist/nihilist militias in the 1960s and 70s helped usher in the current generation’s culture wars.
So it bothers me very much to see a contemporary resurgence in the kind of sentiment and speech that I heard in my late adolescence, the kind of words and ideas that led McVeigh and Nichols to kill 168 people fifteen years ago. I didn’t say anything about the notions I heard before Oklahoma City because I thought it was diverting, idle chatter — a jester’s story, if you will. Now that I’m starting to hear the same BS, I must say that it’s time to stop . . . before our nation’s adolescent obsession with civilian militias gets people killed again.