WASHINGTON — Until last October, Morris Wilson was, in his own words, "a kept man."
A floor-covering installation contractor in Topeka, Kan., he was filled with frustration and unfocused anger, a 56-year-old man no longer able to make his craft pay because of "taxes and regulations," forced to endure the humiliation of relying on his wife's small business to pay the bills.
"I'm one of the top experts in my field, and I can't make any more than people flipping hamburgers at McDonald's. I have to do jobs for my wife at her small business."
Then, last October, he heard Mark Koernke.
Finally, everything seemed to make sense.
"I saw one of his videotapes and heard his radio show, and then I heard he was coming to Independence, Mo., to give a speech, and so I hooked up with the group there and invited him to speak in Topeka. We had about 200 come from all over, and he just seemed to have answers for people's questions."
Now, seven months later, Wilson is commander of the newly formed Kansas Unorganized Citizens Militia, Topeka Brigade, perhaps 100 strong.
"With his background in military intelligence, he has access to information that we don't have," Wilson says of his conversion to Koernke's cause. "He explained about the black helicopters. What business do black helicopters have to be flying low over populated areas?"
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, as the nation struggles to understand the worst act of domestic terrorism in its history, millions of Americans have gotten their first glimpse of the world of the right-wing militia movement. Militia leaders have denounced the bombing. But the chief suspect, Timothy J. McVeigh, was reported to have consorted with militia members and espoused similar views.
The public utterances of ultraconservative militia leaders present almost a mirror image--a reverse print--of the world that mainstream Americans see around them: National leaders ostensibly controlling the affairs of state are seen as puppets of obscure external powers. Law enforcement agencies outwardly pledged to protect the public are scheming to enslave it. Where does this extraordinary view of reality come from? And how does it so effectively resist all attempts to change it?
The answer, in significant part, appears to be that the militia members inhabit something akin to an echo chamber. Steadfastly rejecting information from mainstream sources, they rely on a media network devoted to their own view.
Using the latest in communications technology to spread their message just below the radar screen of the mainstream media, militantly ultraconservative talk show hosts, fax mavens, computer jocks and militia leaders help define the militia \o7 Zeitgeist \f7 by bouncing news bulletins and apocalyptic rhetoric back and forth off the communications satellites and across the Internet.
Listen to Tom Valentine, a Florida talk show host who follows Koernke, a.k.a. "Mark from Michigan," each night on shortwave radio. It is "laughable," Valentine declares knowingly, "to say there is not a conspiracy to create a one-world government. They want the world in their image. All we see are their front men, but behind them are the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers. . . . "
Or Norm Resnik, a shortwave radio talk show host in rural Colorado: "The thinking is that the government plans to subjugate us to a spiritual, political and economic Babylon," Resnik says. "There is great economic frustration out there among the militia. Something is disappearing--jobs.
"We are not as concerned about Waco and Ruby Ridge (the bloody federal raid on tax protester Randy Weaver) as we are about NAFTA, GATT, and the Mexican bailout."
The loosely organized, yet expanding right-wing militia movement has spread deep into the American heartland. Old enemies of American ultra-rightists--blacks and Jews--have largely been supplanted by a new target: the federal government.
In the process, the militia has created its own history, its own mind-set and its own reality to cope with the world around it.
Outside observers say that leaders of the present-day militia movement have few direct ties to older racist or anti-Semitic extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis, and militia spokesmen insist that they are not white supremacists.
"This seems to be a new generation," says Irwin Suall, director of special projects at the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors the militia. "These are not the same people we saw in the KKK or the John Birch Society."
One of the few traditional groups that is openly allied to the militia is the Liberty Lobby, a Washington-based ultra-right organization that dates back to the red-scare days of the 1950s. Its newsletter, the Spotlight, is widely circulated among militia members.
But while the names and faces may be different from earlier hate groups, the paranoia is believable. There is just so much happening right in front of you, you don't have to say wild things to catch people's attention.