All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1996

Freedom, Militias, and the Violence Inherent in the System

What Are the Root Causes of Militias?

Mr. Billingsley is a media fellow of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.

Political violence is a serious subject, and since the Oklahoma bombing many pundits have portrayed the nation as near a takeover by crazed, cabbage-patch commandos. But the key to the militia phenomenon may be found in a form of analysis once popular on the Left.

This has been the century of political violence. From Lenin to Fidel Castro to the Sendero Luminoso, an alphabet soup of militants, most of them Marxist-Leninists, gained or attempted to gain power through the barrel of a gun. But many comfy North Americans hesitated to indulge in blanket condemnation of such actions.

Instead, they issued impassioned pleas to consider the “root causes” of violent revolution. The Sendero, FLSN, FMLN, NPA, and other groups, one was assured, were not committed to violence and terrorism as such. Rather, generations of abject poverty and oppressive government drove them to it. The guerrillas were simply responding in kind to “the violence inherent in the system.” The real perpetrators and abettors of violence, according to this view, were those who hoped for gradual non-violent change within the system.

The root causes of poverty and oppression, spokesmen of the Left said, were what U.S. policy needed to address. Otherwise the nation would only be “putting band-aids on cancer,” and even making the situation worse.

Another analysis popular with the religious Left was “structural evil.” The violence of revolutionary movements was linked not with the imperfections of human nature but social and political structures such as military government, capitalism, and patriarchal religion. Structural evil, the Left contended, required a structural solution, and those who thought otherwise were guilty of collaborating with the forces of evil.

The United States, with its capitalist economy and alleged long record of slavery, racism, pollution, and mistreatment of native peoples, was also a target for criticism. If one wasn’t a part of the solution, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver once said, one was part of the problem. Commentators of the Left, while denouncing violence, urged ordinary citizens to understand the deep injustices that motivated the rebels.

But the same people now appear to be applying a different standard to the militias.

Not only did the Left, correctly, refuse to excuse the Oklahoma City bombing. It also failed to consider root causes. Yet most militia members, unlike communist revolutionaries, have never actually used violence. Rather, some Americans—even a few African-Americans—worried that their freedom is coming under attack, have been dressing up in camouflage and training with weapons. When these militia members appeared before Congress to plead their case, liberal representatives and reporters treated them like dangerous crazies. Where was the willingness to ask the right questions? The answers do matter.

Endangered Liberty

What changes in American society could have driven these people to act this way? In Washington the spokesmen for the militias said it was the continuing encroachment of the government into private life, to a point that liberty and sometimes life are in danger. Here the militias are not shooting blanks.

Rare is the observer who will defend government actions at Waco, Texas, or Ruby Ridge in Idaho. But in supposedly progressive California, agents on a drug raid shot dead Donald Scott, a man who had refused to sell his land to enlarge a nearby park. A Ventura County sheriff conceded that the acquisition of Mr. Scott’s land was part of the motivation for the raid, which turned up no drugs. An immigrant farmer found himself hounded as a felon, fined a huge amount, and had his tractor impounded for unknowingly running over some rats. Such horror stories are far from rare.

Could some sort of “structural evil” be at work in such cases? Could it be that doctrines such as asset forfeiture have pushed some federal agencies to extreme behavior? Could the exaltation of animal rights over human rights actually be built into the system in certain cases?

If such root causes exist, then it won’t do simply to vilify those who feel threatened by lumping them in with genuine extremists, racists, and bomb throwers. Those are the groups that demand the attention of our law enforcement agencies, not peaceful citizens who happen to strike the agencies as odd, and who cling tenaciously to their rights and freedoms. And the real extremists, it might be noted, are hardly the “right-wing” groups of media legend. By their own admission, they are a breed of national socialists and their rhetoric centers on class warfare, not citations from free-market economists.

Instead of spinning conspiracies, perhaps the time has come for our policymakers to take a cue from the Left, focus on the root causes of militias and eliminate the violence inherent in the system. A structural problem requires a structural solution akin to the one that ended the Cold War: the abolition or rollback of the institutional arrangements that threaten freedom, and their replacement with ones that maximize freedom within the framework of a moral, democratic, and pluralistic society.