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Martyr Without a Cause

The Antigovernment Crowd Declared Marvin Heemeyer a Hero After He Died Trying to Level a Colorado Town With an Armored Bulldozer. Never Mind That the 'Patriots' Got It All Wrong.

July 25, 2004|Martin J. Smith | Martin J. Smith is a senior editor at the magazine and the coauthor of "POPLORICA: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America."

The lifeless body of Marvin Heemeyer was still at the controls of his Jurassic bulldozer when the strange chatter began. For the preceding 90 minutes he'd behaved like an imperious child who didn't get his way, avenging his wounded pride by trying to raze 13 buildings in the rustic mountain town of Granby, Colo. But almost as soon as he'd ended the rampage by putting a bullet through his head, the former muffler shop magnate was attracting admirers.

Not in Granby, of course. Most of the locals were too angry, especially about Heemeyer's decision to demolish the home of a former mayor's 82-year-old widow, and his decision to fire a volley from a .50-caliber rifle in an attempt to explode massive propane tanks across the street from a dense cluster of senior housing. But outside of this ranching community--out there in the ideological abstract, where mythmaking continues apace and details don't much matter--52-year-old Marv Heemeyer was being celebrated in terms that suggest he'd pitched his bizarre fit at precisely the right time and in precisely the right place.

The antigovernment crowd that historically has flourished in the Western U.S. had been in slow retreat since true terrorism came to America in 1995. But last month, it suddenly resurfaced and exuberantly embraced Heemeyer as a fellow warrior against bureaucratic tyranny. That he'd managed to kill no one other than himself during his rampage was certainly a plus.

"Awe-inspiring," wrote one Web commentator, who characterized the targets of Heemeyer's rage--a neighboring businessman with whom he'd long feuded, Granby town officials, the local newspaper editor and others who'd prevailed against Heemeyer during a garden-variety zoning dispute--as "insatiable prostitutes on a Navy payday, whoring themselves for any and every dime that's not nailed down."

Opined another: "When a man has had it 'up to here' with all the bull that the corrupt officials dish out, he can do things others may find unreasonable yet are totally justifiable. This man will go down as a folk hero, not just in Granby but across the nation.... This is the beginning of a new revolution by those of us who are tired of 'taxation without representation.' Let the battle cry be, 'Remember Marvin Heemeyer!' "

A 17-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills immediately registered the domain name and began building a website to honor Heemeyer and his machine, complete with written and video tributes from "fans." He anchored its temporary home page with a photograph of Heemeyer's now-legendary armored bulldozer and the somber incantation: "Never forget."

If those and other efforts to embrace Heemeyer as a noble martyr for a righteous antigovernment cause seem, at best, a bit overeager, they are at worst misguided and unfair to the man himself, according to Heemeyer's family. But the reactions do tell a story that's no less interesting and complicated than what happened in Granby on June 4--a story that says a lot about the desperation of the disenfranchised in these early years of a troubled new millennium.

Don't-tread-on-me America was born of revolution, and the cry for freedom from government tyranny has been a vital and vibrant part of the culture since citizen militias fought the Revolutionary War. It continues today in everything from tax protest movements to ongoing rallies against the war in Iraq. But among those who monitor such things, the loose confederation of tax resistors, gun control opponents, privacy rights advocates, constitutionalists, secessionists and others--often called patriot groups--took modern form in 1994, when a group calling itself the Militia of Montana organized under the motto: "Here in our Homeland: God, Guts, & Guns."

"These groups are mainly animated by opposition to the federal government," says Mark Potok, who edits a quarterly magazine covering the "American radical right" for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Their common thread, he adds, is "the idea of an oppressive federal government and a new world order [that includes] secret plots to take over the U.S. There are thousands of variations on the theme, all animated by conspiracy theories."

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