When it comes to the emotional issue of gun control, Harry Truman had it right when he said, "The only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."
I've been thinking about Harry's observation quite a bit over the past weeks and months as I've been listening to our latest raging gun control debate. I've been waiting for someone, anyone, to talk about the gun-control elephant in the room, but so far it hasn't happened. I think it's time.
I admit that I have a slightly different concern than most folks when it comes to the subject of gun control. In fact, my main concern, and also my main area of expertise on this subject, really has nothing to do with controlling gun ownership or trying to figure out the best way to stop some of us from murdering the rest of us with assault rifles and the like, which I acknowledge is quite disturbing and happening at an unprecedented rate.
Even so, I believe there is a darker side to our current gun conversation. The elephant is the impact that the gun control debate is having on the conspiracy-driven anti-government movement. Make no mistake about it. We are currently setting the stage for things to literally start blowing up again, big things like federal buildings. And as Harry Truman would surely have relished pointing out, it's happened before for the exact same reasons.
My belief that history is repeating itself when it comes to the radical right is based on my research of the subject over the past 20 years, including spending many months holed up with people in armed compounds across the country, from Texas to Montana to California to Florida. I have written much on the subject, including my first book, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning, which I wrote back in the mid 1990s, the last time things were blowing up over the perceived threat of the government taking away citizens' guns.
The modern militia
You may recall that it was a national furor over the Second Amendment that launched the birth of the modern anti-government militia movement in the early 1990s. The catalyst for the movement's birth was the government's gun-related sting operation against Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The sting went badly wrong, and before it was over, Weaver's family was shot to bits by federal agents for what was, at most, a minor gun violation. Weaver's wife Vicki and son Sammy were both killed by federal agents.
Gun owners everywhere were beyond outraged by the government's actions, and the leaders of the violent, racist right — including the heads of Christian Identity churches, Aryan Nations, the KKK, Posse Comitatus and nearly every white supremacist and separatist organization in the country came together in Estes Park shortly after the Ruby Ridge incident and devised a plan to exploit the national anger over guns and government. These racist leaders devised and launched a plan that would eventually result in the creation of a 3-million-strong anti-government militia/constitutionalist movement.
Recruits to these new anti-government organizations that sprang up in every state in the union were told that the government wanted to take away their guns so that it could declare martial law and/or suspend the Constitution and/or imprison American citizens on behalf of the Jews and blacks who were taking over the world. The ultimate threat depended on which group you were in; some were racially motivated, some were not.
These anti-government adherents were told that the U.S. government had been infiltrated by proponents of the one-world government that would stop at nothing, including killing them and their families, in order to take their guns. They used Ruby Ridge as the proof that the conspiracy theory was true.
The racist leaders who planned and launched the movement were pretty smart. They made the decision to downplay their racial rhetoric in the beginning in order to make the movement more appealing to mainstream Americans such as those in traditional churches, small rural towns, and members of the National Rifle Association whose anti-government rhetoric following Ruby Ridge became the fuel for the new movement's growth.
It all might have died down at some point, except for the federal government's inability to learn from its mistakes. At the same time the anti-government movement was telling anyone who would listen that the feds would do anything to take away your guns — unbelievably, less than a year after Ruby Ridge — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched its monumental failure of a raid on David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, for the purpose of taking guns that had not been properly registered and may have been converted from semi to fully automatic and, of course, arresting the offending gun owners.
The raid resulted in a televised bloodbath followed by a 51-day standoff that resulted in yet another bloodbath and fire.
For David Koresh, who was a conspiracy believer who taught his followers that they would know it was the biblical end times when the government came to get them, the ATF raid to take the Davidians' guns was their confirmation that the end-times conspiracy was true.
At the end of the siege, 76 people within the compound had been killed, most of them lost in the fire on the last day of the standoff, many of them women and children. The anti-government sentiment across the country exploded after the Waco debacle and so did the number of people who joined the militia movement. Though no one knew it at the time, a young former soldier by the name of Timothy McVeigh was in the crowd at Waco watching the siege and growing angrier with the government with each passing day.
We all know what happened after that. On the second anniversary of the Waco fire, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 innocent people, including 19 children in a daycare housed in the building. McVeigh and tens of thousands of other anti-government practitioners considered themselves to be at war with our government. For them and their innocent victims, the war was absolutely real.
I remind you of our tragic past in hopes that you will understand my grave concern when I say that the sociological environment that gave birth to the domestic anti-government violence of the 1990s has returned today, more powerful than ever.
If, as Truman said, history is an indicator of future events, then the level of anti-government radicalism that is on the verge of boiling over today far exceeds that which existed 15 to 20 years ago and led to so much racial, religious and conspiracy-fueled violence. Things are worse today because the large end of the anti-government funnel has gotten bigger, much bigger, in recent years.
Academics, journalists and watchdog groups who study the anti-government movement have often used the metaphor of a funnel to describe how people transition from merely frustrated with their government into violent radicals at war with their government.
In the 1990s, there was little question by those of us researching the anti-government movement that the NRA represented one of, if not the, largest single organization pouring people into the top of the anti-government funnel. Joining the NRA with their own ax to grind against government were the many rural refugees of the decade-long farm crisis and their urban cousins living in the Rust Belt, who had been likewise economically hammered by unemployment due to the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and the recession of the late '80s and early '90s.
This isn't to say that there is anything wrong with being a member of the NRA, an unemployed Rust-Belt worker or a foreclosed-on farmer. There isn't.
The premise behind the funnel metaphor is that if you pour enough people into the large end who share a distrust of government — whether it's a distrust based on their interpretation of the Second Amendment, or a distrust by people who blame the government for their economic troubles — a small number of those people, when continuously exposed to political, racial and religious-based conspiracy theories and associated rhetoric, will eventually become true believers and be forced out of the small end of the funnel as fully radicalized, dangerous individuals who believe it is their duty to fight the government and/or non-whites and/or non-Christians by any means possible, including terrorism and murder.
The theory is that the more people there are entering the top of the funnel, the more violent radicals come out the small end.
So who is entering the top of the funnel these days? It is being filled by a true cornucopia of anti-government sentiment. As evidenced by current media reports, the NRA is still flowing into the funnel with its inflammatory anti-government talking points as a result of the current gun control debate, but it is no longer the largest group entering the anti-government funnel.
The tea party, which many observers believe is merely the reincarnation of the 1990s militia movement — that's to say that it's the same people, albeit with a more political than militaristic agenda, at least on the surface — is likely the largest contributor to the funnel. With high profile people like Sarah Palin, who had her own ties to the anti-government movement in Alaska, and Ron Paul with his Federal Reserve and gold standard conspiracies, and Michele Bachmann's militia-informed revisionist American history leading the way, being anti-government has become nearly mainstream.
Adding fuel to this dangerous fire is Fox News, with its constant anti-government whine and frequent repeating of the movement's conspiracy theories, from Obama's birth certificate to "who controls the Federal Reserve?" with its anti-Semitic innuendo. Then throw in the fact that a black man is president, which is a primary motivator for the racist elements of the movement — who believe that blacks are the soulless, mud people henchmen at the command of the Jews, who are trying to control the world — and we have one full anti-government funnel.
It's no wonder that the anti-government watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting that the movement has exploded since 2008 and is now bigger than it has ever been, much bigger than it was last time things started blowing up.
But as I said earlier, millions of people get pulled into the top of the funnel and never break the law or do anything more than exercise their right to free speech. So why do some people descend deeper into the funnel than others, and why are some folks such fertile ground for conspiracy theories?
You could walk up to almost anyone on the street and tell them that the reason our government is trying to control guns and prevent us from owning assault rifles is because U.N. troops are secretly massing on the Mexican side of the Texas border in preparation for an all-out attack on U.S. citizens that has been sanctioned by our own now-corrupt government, which has, due to a series of complex legal maneuverings in the courts, become nothing more than a puppet of the World Bank, which is really just a front for the Jews, who have been plotting this overthrow of America since the day that they spelled out their plans for a one-world government as described in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion ... and you'd probably get a funny look as that person ran away bewildered and disgusted.
It's easy to laugh, but it's really not funny. As crazy as the above conspiracy theory sounds to most people, there are others, hundreds of thousands of others, who absolutely believe that most if not all of the above, admittedly oversimplified for space, conspiracy theories are true.
Conspiracy theories are a complex issue. While they just sound nuts to most people, these theories evolve over time with incredible detail and supposedly supporting data. At their core, conspiracy theories explain the secret reason that something that a person doesn't like is happening to them. Enter the psychology behind the conspiracies.
You could write a book on this subject — I know, I did — so trying to explain it in a paragraph isn't easy. At its core, when people become seriously depressed, often due to economic stress from things such as losing your job and not being able to find a new one, or losing a farm or home to foreclosure, their depression stems from blaming themselves for the problem. They believe they are failures who have let down their families. If unchecked, this depression can lead to suicide, as evidenced by the fact that suicide was the No. 1 cause of death on the family farm during the farm crisis.
But the human mind is always looking for a way out. When it comes to self-blame, scapegoating or blame-shifting is the escape of choice. When it comes to blame-shifting economic problems, the No. 1 choice is to blame the government or the banks or, more often than not, both, for what is happening to you.
So when someone tells you that your problems aren't your fault, it's the banks' or the government's fault, and then they start weaving this incredibly detailed tale of how Satan is fighting God, and the government has been infiltrated, and how you are merely a victim in this cosmic war that now needs you as a soldier to restore America to its rightful place as the super number one most special and blessed country in the world ... it feels like a salve to your unbearably painful psychological wounds. There is literally a pain-ending conspiracy salve for every problem a person can have.
The closer you are to the bottom, the more fertile your mind becomes for the planting of a conspiracy theory. Anyone can fall prey to conspiracy thinking.
For example, last August, a sitting Texas judge made headlines for publicly declaring that, should Obama win a second term, he was putting together a local militia to combat U.N. forces that Obama would mass at the Mexican border to attack us. We all laughed, but we shouldn't have. The truth is, there were nearly a hundred grown men with guns, all products of the funnel, actually willing to drive south to the border and start shooting people if this judge told them to.
This was occurring at a time when there was already speculation among law enforcement and those who monitor the radical right that American vigilantes may already be murdering undocumented migrants along the border.
This stuff isn't funny. People are dying. It doesn't matter that you think conspiracy theories are stupid. What matters is that a shocking number of people believe them with every fiber of their body.
And for those people — true believers like Tim McVeigh and Olympic Park/abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, tax protester and Posse leader Gordon Kahl, Sikh Temple killer Wade Page, the seven anti-government radicals in Louisiana who killed two cops in August, the 65-year-old man who, just weeks ago, shot a school bus driver and took a 6-year-old hostage in his bunker, the radicals in Georgia accused of killing a couple to get nearly $100,000 in weapons for the coming race war, the hundreds of thousands of people who call themselves sovereigns, and countless others who believe that they are at war with their government — every time the issue of gun control starts making headlines, the ensuing debate becomes yet another confirmation that the conspiracy theories they have latched onto are true. And these true believers who have popped out of the small end of the anti-government funnel are willing to murder and terrorize and blow things up in their effort to win a war that the vast majority of us don't even know is being waged.
There are few things more powerful or dangerous than a mind being driven by hate-fueled conspiracy thinking.
The conspiracy theories are always with us, as is the anti-government funnel, but there are certain times when the headlines, at least to true believers, appear to confirm the truth of those conspiracies, and that is when things can quickly get out of hand and dangerous.
Unfortunately, I believe that we have now entered such a time because we have been in the worst recession in U.S. history, with no thanks to our banks, and we have a black president who is leading the charge to restrict gun ownership. It's a conspiracy theorist's wet dream that will likely unleash a period of sporadic, isolated anti-government terrorism.
I hope that I'm wrong.
Joel Dyer is a journalist, author and editor of the Boulder Weekly, where this story was originally printed. He's written two books, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning and Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits From Crime, both published by Basic Books and available at amazon.com.