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Armed and Dangerous

LONE PATRIOT: The Short Career of an American Militiaman, By Jane Kramer, Pantheon: 260 pp., $25

June 23, 2002|JAMES COATES | James Coates is the author of several books, including "Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right." He is a computer columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

When an elitist panders to the quaint natives of some far-flung precinct, the practice goes by many names, including "patronizing" and "slumming." Such terms come to mind after picking up Jane Kramer's "Lone Patriot," the story of John Pitner, late of the Washington State Militia as its leader and later still of the U.S. federal penitentiary system as a resident.

A National Book Award winner and a star writer of the "Letter From Europe" for the New Yorker, Kramer most certainly does "get" Pitner, who was accused in 1997 of plotting, with others, a war against the federal government, although a conviction on a lesser charge led to his imprisonment. She gets what he was about, from the top of his Christian Patriot's head to the tips of his anti-Semitic jackboots.

Sure, Kramer had to do a lot of slumming to write this book: Imagine somebody with Kramer's credentials keeping company with the slack-jawed, lowbrow crowd of rural militia zealots and their women who populate the pages of "Lone Patriot." Anybody with a minimum of common sense and a modicum of human decency wouldn't be slumming with Pitner's crowd of gun-toting extremists who fear having government computer chips installed in their hind ends.

But Kramer did hang out with these people, and, in "Lone Patriot," she gives readers what may be the most important book written about America's curious and very dangerous survivalist right-wing movement.

Kramer documents how this universe of small-town paranoids, backwoods anti-Semites and government-hating welfare recipients from such bizarre fringe groups as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and the Christian Identity group find their way ever closer to the American mainstream.

This happens, she shows, as the relatively small survivalist hate movement's politics get adopted by the far more populous militia crowds in rural America. Upon reading "Lone Patriot," one learns how the militia, also calling itself the Patriot movement, strikes an appealing chord for many rural Americans who come into conflict with the system as school dropouts and chronically unemployed laborers, and who bristle with hatred at those who prosper in a system that baffles them.

As a perpetually unemployed housepainter, Pitner is a storybook rural American loser. He stood out among the good people of Whatcom County, Wash., because he had a flair for public speaking and because he did enough homework to learn the Patriot spiel from such masters of backwoods oration and populist manipulation as John Trochmann, the glib and notorious leader of the Militia of Montana who mentored Pitner and turned him into yet another recruiter for the ill-starred Patriot movement.

Based on interviews with Pitner, his wife and a string of shirttail relatives, Kramer traces the Pitner saga during the mid-1990s as he became obsessed with the delusion that federal forces were stalking him and as he spread that paranoia among his neighbors. Kramer says she spent most of a year in Whatcom County and even made friends with some of the people there.

Kramer relates how the Patriots developed a well-honed sales pitch that lets leaders like Trochmann make a living selling hate literature, military supplies and tchotchkes such as Ku Klux Klan salt and pepper shakers and "Don't Tread on Me" flags to their friends and neighbors.

It's fascinating to follow Pitner as he performs his duties, like any pyramid sales operator holding parties to sell do-it-yourself law forms instead of Tupperware. He tells Kramer that he started with $600 worth of military intelligence data he bought from Trochmann and parlayed it into at least a living wage for a few years as he built his Washington State Militia.

Kramer's literary treatments of the zealots of Whatcom County reminds one of John Steinbeck's artful creation of ne'er-do-well guys and gals in "Cannery Row" and "Tortilla Flat." They're wacky and even carry a certain dignity as they prepare for the United Nations tanks about to pour over the Canadian border. There is old Doc Ellwanger, the beloved town veterinarian who would stay up all night nursing an ill 4-H Club lamb but who wanted to kill the Jews in the Federal Reserve bank.

Pitner's wife, Debbie, is a rough-hewn, ax-swinging ranch woman who somehow got past a teenage bout with drug abuse and a fling with Pitner at 13 that hardly sounds romantic. Debbie Pitner wasn't all that taken with Patriot mumbo jumbo, but she was glad to see that John had created a paying job for himself and had stopped sitting around the house brooding about worldwide conspiracies and establishing a Patriot colony in outer space.

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