WASHINGTON — One thing should be said about the militia movement: Public relations is not its strong suit.
In their first joint appearance on Capitol Hill for a full-blown, nationally televised congressional hearing, militia leaders from across the country claimed that their controversial movement is as benign as a Neighborhood Watch.
Yet they also warned darkly of angry Americans wreaking "vengeance and retribution," while predicting that "time was running out" before "armed conflict" erupted between the citizenry and the federal government.
The hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism was scheduled after the April 19 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, for which charges have been filed against two men who share the beliefs of many militia organizations.
Federal and local law enforcement officials who testified Thursday didn't attempt to link the militia organizations to the bombing. But they did warn that militia rhetoric is becoming increasingly explosive, and that the belief that the federal government is the enemy of the people is now spreading through heavily armed militias active in at least 39 states.
"We are seeing a real change, a much more dangerous level of rhetoric than we ever saw before," cautioned Richard Romley, prosecuting attorney for Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix.
Militia leaders tried at times to give their movement an air of normalcy. "What is the militia?" said Ken Adams of the Michigan militia. "We are doctors, lawyers, people getting involved in their government."
James Johnson of Ohio, one of the nation's few black militia leaders, added that allegations the movement is dominated by white supremacists and former Ku Klux Klan members were false.
"This is the civil rights movement of the '90's," Johnson said. "We're not baby killers, we're baby boomers. We're not terrorists, we're taxpayers. When people say that this movement is for angry white men, I say, if blacks had always had guns, we wouldn't have been slaves."
Yet as the militia leaders testified, such professions of good citizenship often veered into the hostile rhetoric that has become their trademark.
"I understand the dynamics involved in the Oklahoma City bombing," argued Norm Olson, former commander of the Michigan militia whose combat fatigues distinguished him as the only militia witness not clad in coat and tie. "It may very well be that there is a conspiracy at the highest levels of government, at the levels above the people here today, behind this bombing. . . . Remember, three days after President Kennedy was killed, we still believed that Lee Harvey Oswald committed the act, people believed the single-bullet theory. . . . Now many of us know better."
Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who was an attorney for the Warren Commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination, responded simply: "We'll leave the single-bullet theory for another day."
In fact, Specter gave the militia leaders plenty of room and time to talk during the hearings, and argued that their beliefs would "fall of their own weight" once they have been publicly aired.
Specter even wondered aloud whether the militia movement would be as strong as it is today if Congress held hearings on the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., immediately after the disaster. The hearings could have given movement leaders a forum to air their grievances and put to rest rumors and speculation that have fueled the militias' rise, he said.
"Whatever you believe, let's get it out in the open, and then let the American people judge whether to believe what you say," Specter said. "I believe that as more people hear what you say, the ranks of the militia will be reduced."
The decision by Specter, a Republican presidential candidate, to hold the hearing was denounced by liberal Democrats. Rep. Charles E. Schumer, (D-N.Y.) charged that it was a cheap publicity stunt that provided a "soapbox for the wacky right."
Sitting quietly in the background as the militia leaders testified was Mark Koernke, the controversial Michigan radio talk show host who has spread the militia ideology widely and is viewed as a mentor by many of the regional militia leaders.
Dropped at the last minute from the hearing, the media-savvy Koernke nevertheless felt that the session went well. "I think our people had time to get some things out there, and C-SPAN will air this six or seven times, and so people will see it, no matter what the rest of the media does with it."
Koernke seemed to sense that the hearing showed just how far the militia movement has come in terms of public attention and notoriety in less than three months. Barely known outside rural America before April 19, the militia has grabbed national attention since the fatal bombing of the Oklahoma City federal office building.