EAST LANSING, Mich. — In his most vehement and direct attack on volunteer militias since the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton on Friday denounced the groups as false patriots, declaring: "There is nothing patriotic about hating your government, or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."
Using the occasion of a commencement address at Michigan State University to speak directly to the volunteer paramilitary organizations, he denounced their ideology as a perversion of Americans' healthy suspicions of government.
"How dare you suggest that we in the freest nation on earth live in tyranny?" he demanded. "How dare you call yourself patriots and heroes? If you appropriate our sacred symbols for paranoid purposes and compare yourselves to Colonial militias who fought for democracy you now rail against, you are wrong."
Clinton's comments, before about 35,000 people in the university's football stadium, were not targeted exclusively--or even primarily--at the most extreme members of the groups, aides said. Rather, they were intended especially for a larger and less dogmatic group that is being drawn into a growing culture of anti-government violence, reinforced through vituperative radio programs.
The audience was receptive, applauding enthusiastically when the President pointedly criticized the militias. It also gave him a standing ovation when he finished his speech.
His message has particular resonance in Michigan in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City explosion. Militant anti-government groups such as the Michigan Militia have gained national attention because of suggestions that chief suspect Timothy J. McVeigh conspired with two friends, brothers James D. and Terry L. Nichols, to make explosive devices on the James Nichols farm in Decker, Mich.
The brothers and McVeigh were said to have attended meetings of the Michigan Militia but have been disavowed by the group.
Clinton said he knows that, among the volunteer militias, there are many who have not broken the law. And he said he understands the animus many Americans feel toward the government, an anger that is fed by an "abusive law officer," an "arbitrary regulator" and a "rude tax collector."
"As long as human beings make up our government, there will be mistakes," he said.
But, he said, there is "no right to resort to violence when you don't get your way."
"There is no right to kill people who are doing their duty, or minding their own business, or children who are innocent in every way," he said, referring to victims of the Oklahoma City blast.
Those who believe that government is "a conspiracy to take your freedom away" are "just plain wrong," he said.
"If you treat law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line for your safety every day like some kind of enemy army, to be suspected, derided, and--if they should be able to enforce the law against you--to be shot, you are wrong," he said.
Michigan Militia spokesman Ken Adams said that the President "doesn't know what he's talking about. We've got the best government in the world, but there are some people that abuse their authority."
Mark Price, operations officer of the group, said that Clinton should "sit down with some members of the Michigan Militia, talk to them man to man. We are working men of the community and we love the Constitution of the United States and will defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Clinton went out of his way to include government workers among "the real heroes" of the day. Among others, he singled out "the rescue worker who digs with his hands in the rubble as the building crumbles around him," and the everyday government employee who "quietly and efficiently labors to see to it that the programs we depend on are honestly and properly carried out."
Clinton denounced all who have turned to violence to achieve political ends, including the Weatherman of the 1960s, urban gang members and the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in New York.
He said it is "one thing to believe the federal government has too much power and work within the law to reduce it." It is "quite another," he said, to break the law "and threaten to shoot officers of the law if all they do is their duty to uphold it."
Clinton recalled his direct experience with right-wing anti-government crusaders from his days as governor of Arkansas. Then, he said, he lived through the killing of a sheriff and a state trooper he knew by right-wing militants who believed "government is the biggest problem we have."
Clinton's comments reinforced remarks he made Thursday in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, in which he said that, while speech should be unfettered, "some speech is wrong."
Mentioning former Watergate conspirator and now radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy by name, Clinton said that some talk shows contribute to impulses toward "violence and lashing out."
"I cannot defend some of the things that Gordon Liddy has said," Clinton said. "I cannot defend some of the things these more extreme talk show hosts have said."
Liddy has advised listeners to shoot at the head or groin area if attacked by federal agents wearing bulletproof vests. And he has lightheartedly acknowledged that he used stick figures of the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as targets during shooting practice.
Despite his harsh words for the militia groups themselves, Clinton said that Michigan should not be tarnished by the fact that it is home to one of the nation's better-known paramilitary groups.
"I know you have heard a lot about Michigan and militias," Clinton said. "But that is not the real Michigan. . . . This is the real Michigan in this stadium today."
He said that Michigan--a key state in presidential elections with its 18 electoral votes--is the Great Lakes, generous people, "Kellogg's Corn Flakes and the best cherries in the world."