(7 of 7)
The movement's communications network is often more sophisticated than its judgment, which means that any mysterious incident gets blown into a conspiracy epic. Take, for instance, the "invasion" of Okanogan County in northwest Washington State. It began last September when a local cattle rancher stumbled across a backwoods military camp teeming with men in fatigues. Word quickly spread that the invasion of U.N. troops had finally begun. When concerned citizens showed up at Sheriff Jim Weed's office, Weed grabbed the telephone and soon learned that the men in cammies were actually border-patrol officials conducting a joint operation with Canadian authorities. By then, though, panic had spread throughout the state, prompting phone calls from state senators and representatives. To this day, there are some patriots who still don't believe Weed's explanation. "I was accused by one person of being seen getting off a U.N. helicopter at an airport wearing a blue helmet," Weed says.
In the wake of Oklahoma City, many U.S. agencies are stepping up their watch of militia activities, but that may only feed the patriots' paranoia about government. If investigators start knocking on the doors of militia members, warns Ron Cole, who is a lecturer on the patriot circuit, "it could conceivably turn into an armed struggle against the government."
Chip Berlet, who tracks right-wing populism for Political Research Associates, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not alone in drawing parallels between America's patriot movement and Germany's Weimar Republic. "You see the rise of a large group of disaffected middle-class and working-class people with a strong sense of grievance," he says. "None of the major parties speak for them." If their grievances aren't resolved, he warns, they are likely to become more militant. The message from the militias is largely the same: whether it takes a whisper or a shout, we will be heard. --Reported by Sam Allis/Boston, Edward Barnes/Petoskey, Michigan, Patrick Dawson/Billings, David S. Jackson/San Francisco, Scott Norvell/Atlanta and Richard Woodbury/Denver