Letter from the Editor: Twisted Patriotism

The ranks of America's antigovernment militias have swelled since Obama took office. TIME investigates their secret world

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Ty Cacek for TIME

TIME Editor at Large Bart Gellman interviews members of the Ohio Defense force in Roseville, Ohio on Aug. 21, 2010.

True patriotism is not owned by any party or person. Nor is there a one-size-fits-all definition that would please all those who consider themselves patriots. We each define the idea — and act on it — in our own way. But there are some definitions that cross the line, that pervert patriotism and take it to a place that is hateful and dangerous. Barry Goldwater famously declared in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Fine. But some forms of extremism in defense of a misguided sense of liberty can be poisonous. And such noxious extremism can come from left or right — or anywhere.

In this week's powerful and disturbing cover story, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative correspondent Barton Gellman explores the world of extreme antigovernment alienation, from the training protocols of America's militias all the way to the deranged plans of a neo-Nazi who sought to plant a dirty bomb in Washington. In recent years, rhetoric on the left and the right of the political spectrum has grown more incendiary, but both sides still aim to achieve their ends with ballots, not bullets. The story portrays those who believe that government is more than just the problem; they believe it is the enemy. The most extreme militants do not believe in change through peaceful means and think it is only a matter of time before they will have to take up arms against the federal government.

Barton spent the past six months working on this, his first TIME cover story, and traveled to California, Ohio, North Carolina, New York and Washington. "I grew up target shooting and have family in the Army," he notes, "so the guns didn't scare me. What scared me is the way some antigovernment groups are training to use them — and the matter-of-factness of some of their members when they speak of bloodshed." The striking photograph on the cover and those inside were taken by a young photographer named Ty Cacek, who accompanied Barton to an Ohio Defense Force training site in Zanesville, Ohio. Ty is just 19, but his vision has a maturity that belies his age. The entire project was overseen by national editor and Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy.

TIME has a long history of innovation in visual media — which continues to this day. In 1937 we won an Oscar for our March of Time newsreels. On Sept. 27, 2010, we won an Emmy in the new digital documentary category, for three online videos called the Iconic Photo series. The series was produced and edited by Craig Duff, TIME.com's director of multimedia, who accepted the award alongside photographer Anthony Suau, whose image of a young man hammering at the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the subject of one of the videos. "The idea," Duff says, "is to bring famous images to life in a new medium, with the same attention to reporting and storytelling that we have always been known for."