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A Little Too Much Freedom?

'Freemen,' Unabomber cases give Montanans second thoughts about the state's live-and-let-live attitude. Faced with growing anxieties, many take a hard look at strangers--and neighbors.


JORDAN, Mont. — Flee to the hills--

A refuge from the daily grind,

Hassle of traffic and endless bills.

It's surprising what one

might find . . .

--Montana poet

Yvonne M. Unruh


The speedometer quivers at just over 100 mph, and the rented sedan is shimmying some too. Is this really reasonable, or prudent, on a public highway?

Then a Cadillac whooshes by at 115, which is reassuring if not also a little maddening. The showoff.

This is Montana, where everyone can enjoy unshackled freedom from everyday rules and regimens.

But for some people, a little freedom, like the freedom to drive legally as damn well fast as you deem "safe," only whets the appetite. Big Sky spaces and Old West traditions provide haven and nourishment for outlaws amid Montana's ordinary individualists and nonconformists. Some immigrate here. Others rise out of pioneer stock. Once in a while, the consequences are awful.

This last week has brought that reality into focus--disturbingly for many here.

"The sound you hear is Montana uttering a collective sigh of embarrassment," says John Schlosser, a law student from a ranching family in Lewistown. "Have these things shaken my faith? Only my faith about what people believe about Montana."

In the eastern part of the state, the growing hunger for absolute freedom, which could also be called grand self-indulgence, produced the local-born "freemen"--a group of anti-government renegades accused by the authorities who now keep watch on their ranch of creating their own bogus money schemes and otherwise proclaiming independence from society and government, stockpiling arsenals and threatening harm to anyone who dared object.

In the western part of the state, a similar yearning may have led a brilliant loner to assemble his own bomb works--with deadly results.

Freedom: You can never have quite enough, it seems.

In Montana, panoramic openness and a lightly sprinkled population provide fertile ground for extremist beliefs to take root. And its Wild West neighborliness supplies protective cover for these ideas to blossom--in particular the old notion that freedom and violence are blood brothers.

With the freeman face-off on a ranch outside Jordan and the arrest of Theodore J. Kaczynski, the suspected Unabomber, in a cabin near Lincoln, Montanans now find themselves wondering as never before about their own outsized myths.

Live and let live--that remains at the heart of Montana's stereotype of itself. This and its stupendous outdoors have idealized Montana like few places. Never mind the hand-to-mouth wind-whipped existence of many here, or that city water is sometimes unfit to drink, or that long lonely winters are endured at 30-below with shivering calves herded into the living room to survive.

"We have an ethic in Montana that you don't dig into your neighbor's business, unless it has to do with your water rights," says Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Commission.

Suspicions Grow

But events of recent days--and several years of trouble with hatemongers and cultists before that--have Montana worried about its traditions. Just as many urban dwellers fret that their cities are going to the dogs, the ranchers and farmers and shopkeepers are taking a hard second look at strangers and peering over their shoulders at their neighbors and relatives.

Rural life isn't what it used to be.

"It's been smoldering for a long time now," says Ed Dobler, the former sheriff and now part-time deputy in remote Garfield County, headquarters for the freemen.

Both ordinary fears of crime and the suspicions of renegades among them have led rural Montanans to install security systems in public buildings and place locks on schools. And, if you believe the news reports, some people have started taking guns into the bathroom when they shower.

"It's natural enough that Montana would attract and breed social misfits," says Mike Malone, historian and president of Montana State University in Bozeman. "The [suspected] Unabomber is an anomaly, but the freemen type have been around for a while, and this has made people very nervous here. People are saying, what in the world is going on when these guys begin arming themselves to the teeth like this, particularly when they're your only neighbor for 20 miles?

"I hope these events are making Montana a little introspective--it's good for it," Malone says.

Montana's 147,138 square miles make it almost the size of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana combined. It is really two states in one, split by the Rockies into the mountains and pines of the west and the vast plains and breaks of the east. And with a population of 800,000, just five people per square mile, residents are outnumbered both by deer and elk. Nearly every community has a packing house for game meat. "Your Food Bank," reads a sign at one in Billings.

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