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Suspicious Minds : Heard about the black helicopters and detention camps? Well, it’s not just the lunatic fringe that traffics in such rumors and hysteria.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Do you think the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens?”

When Gallup pollsters asked that question of 1,008 Americans a few days after the bombing in Oklahoma City, they tapped a deep, roiling well of fear and loathing: 39% of conservatives answered “yes.” And even more liberals (42%) perceived that the government was out to get them.

Have we become a nation of paranoids hunkered down in dread of a jackbooted Big Brother? Not yet, but a definite weirdness is loose in the land. . . .

Didn’t you hear about the seismology records that showed there were two explosions in Oklahoma?

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“Black helicopters” are everywhere, the shortwave reports.

They’re building detention camps for gun owners, according to e-mail from the underground.

And you can’t trust CNN and the newspapers--they’re “controlled” media. It’s obvious: Timothy McVeigh is just another Oswald, a patsy for the conspiracy.

The crackdown is coming. The shadow government is going to tap your phone, seize your assets, kill your cat.

Cigarettes will be illegal. UFOs are involved. Encrypt your messages. Prepare for another Waco-style standoff.

Hell, prepare for “The Stand.”

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It’s not just the lunatic fringe of the militia movement that traffics in such rumor and hysteria. So do thousands of self-styled “patriots” and former volunteers in the Perot for President movement; so do leftists, dope smokers and libertarians, politicians and corporate propagandists.

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Your average fed up, suspicious taxpayers get swept along by the tide. It’s significant that the poll asking about the “immediate threat” of the federal government was conducted April 23-24, a week after Tax Day.

Paranoia--not the clinical kind, but the cultural kind--may well be our national religion, as old as the Republic itself.

Historian Richard Hofstadter traced this “paranoid style” throughout American political history, concluding, “No other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

It’s always simmering, but paranoia boils over more frequently in times of social change and stress, and when centuries wind down. Remember, the millennium is at hand. Some voices of doom:

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“I feel it is more likely that I will be killed by an agent of the government than by a crook. It’s gotten that bad,” says Dave Feustel, 50, a computer programmer in Fort Wayne, Ind. The fiery deaths of more than 80 Branch Davidians at Waco, Tex., “is what set people off,” he says. “If the government can do that to somebody else, they can do it to me.”

A 40-ish woman in Northern California sees all the signs of the coming fascist regime. The Oklahoma bombing was “our very own Reichstag fire,” she says, an incident carried out by the government so the militias could be the scapegoat and then be rounded up, and guns outlawed. “I’m sure that before Hitler got into power, people didn’t realize what was going to happen,” she warns, and refuses to be further identified because “they could have my name on a list.”

These people are not in militias. They’re educated, quiet folks. They’re not paranoid, they say--but even if they are, as the old joke goes, that doesn’t mean somebody isn’t out to get them.

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Eventually, all evil can be traced to the New World Order. The Eastern elites, the invisible string-pullers, the stealth agencies, the Federal Reserve. They’ve been running the nation for many years. They actually suspended the Constitution in 1933, but you don’t know it yet. They’re the ones bent on establishing one-world government and implanting microchips in people’s foreheads.

Need proof? Look on the back of a dollar bill. What’s that creepy, all-seeing eye doing there, above the pyramid?

Popular entertainments reinforce our darkest fears. Quasi-historical films such as “JFK” and “Panther"--both made by left-leaning directors--presume malignant federal plots. Deadly, government-hatched viruses are the latest Hollywood vogue.

The O.J. Simpson case is hardly fiction, but for nearly a year it has fueled bizarre conspiracy theories. (It was a Mafia drug hit, you know.) Simpson’s lawyers routinely hint at some massive racist police plot to frame the defendant. They play directly to the jurors’ mistrust of the System.

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On the Internet, the discussions on conspiracies enjoy burgeoning readership. “Clinton Purging Military Opposition?” asks one posting, speculating about recent crashes of military aircraft. The on-line Conspiracy Nation newsletter announces that Hillary Rodham Clinton has already been indicted on two counts in the Whitewater probe.

You wonder why none of this made the network news? Well, that’s just evidence of the cover-up.

“The wonderful thing about a conspiracy story is that it supplies perfect understanding,” says Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and author of a book on racist religious fanatics. “It tells you that all the evil in the world has a single cause, and the cause is Them, whoever that may be.

“We’re in a very strange period because the Cold War is over and there’s no obvious enemy any longer,” Barkun says. “We don’t have a clearly identified malevolent force for which we can blame the problems of the world. So there is a substitute now for some people.”

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They did it. They’re screwing up everything. Those people.

Tune in to talk shows, right or left of the dial, and the barricades are apparent. The liberals. The haters. The gun nuts. The people on welfare. The ivory-tower elitists.

And there’s always ample reason to suspect official wrongdoing.

In the past few months, the CIA has been linked to murders in Guatemala. Robert McNamara’s book reveals that he was dissembling all along. And the rest: The radiation experiments on unwitting citizens. Iran-Contra. Watergate.

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The mushrooming federal reach is under attack from state and local officials as well. Today more than 50 federal agencies are authorized to carry firearms and make arrests.

“It’s bipartisan, and at the extremes in both parties,” says Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who specializes in the paranoid mentality. “The common ground has been there for a while, shared by people who fear the government stomping in to take their guns or the government stomping in to take their drugs.”

Nobody mistrusts the state as much as old ‘60s lefties, who suffered from infiltration, surveillance and wiretapping operations. (Being stoned amped up the paranoia even more.) In those days the right wing was applauding the crackdown on wild-eyed, bomb-making hippies and militant black “subversives.”

But an unlikely alliance has been formed by onetime ideological enemies upset over the Branch Davidian incident and the 1992 deaths of the wife and son of white separatist Randy Weaver, who were shot by federal agents in Idaho--two cautionary flash points invoked by those who foresee an American dictatorship.

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In January, 1994, a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, drug policy reform groups and pro-gun lobbyists petitioned President Clinton to investigate “widespread abuses” by federal law enforcement agencies, including improper use of deadly force, entrapment and “use of unreliable informants.” Neither the White House nor the Justice Department acted.

Today, many liberal activists have joined with pro-militia conservatives to fight some of the President’s domestic counterterrorism proposals--which would allow greater electronic surveillance and access to phone, travel and credit card records.

“To see the National Rifle Assn. and Gun Owners of America on the same page of a letter with the American Friends Service Committee and the Presbyterian Church--that’s an indication that there’s something there,” says David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Boulder, Colo.

Kopel and others fear that rash legislation to disarm the militias could produce just the sort of standoffs that the most paranoid fringers think inevitable under the nefarious New World Order. “The worst scenario you can have is this mutually reinforced paranoia as both sides come up with conjectures and stereotypes of each other,” he says.

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“The proposals on Capitol Hill [to ban militias] are the nationwide equivalent of closing the tanks in on the Branch Davidian compound,” Dietz adds. “If you want to make paranoid groups more paranoid, all that need be done is to show them that their worst fears are true.”

Why now? Why have 10,000 to 40,000 people across America taken up arms to defend themselves against the government?

“Many of them have been victims of government corruption or abuse, or know people who were victims of corruption or abuse,” says Jon Roland, a militia leader in Texas who once organized voters for Ross Perot. Roland is calling for an “independent” investigation of the Oklahoma tragedy because of concerns that some sort of “military” bomb was involved.

Why are millions of citizens invoking the revolutionary rhetoric of Lexington and Concord, of Paine and Jefferson?

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“Because our tax rate is oppressive--it represents enslavement to a system of government that does not represent us,” says another former Perot organizer who now belongs to the Sons of Liberty of Virginia, which pamphlets against government “tyranny.”

“The only way to prevent another [Oklahoma bombing] is to lower the level of taxation,” he asserts.

But there are other reasons. We live in an age of moral relativism, the decline of family, increased mobility, information overload. Life seems precarious. We crave simplicity. White men in particular feel excluded, put upon, downsized.

“This is a network where a lot of the militia guys, who were once in the military, can get that camaraderie, a feeling that ‘these are like-minded buddies who really will support me,’ ” says psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer, an expert in group behavior and cults. “Added on to all this is the millennium. Every time a century ends, people are running up and down the streets, predicting the end of the world.”

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It’s telling that David Koresh, a doomsday prophet, has become the rallying point for so many other apocalyptic kooks, despite the fact that a majority of Americans--73%, according to the recent Gallup poll--believe the April, 1993, raid on the Branch Davidian compound was “appropriate.”

But if the aim of the terrorist bombers in Oklahoma was to draw attention to Waco, they ably succeeded. Alleged abuses by government agents are getting more attention than ever.

Some 260 radio stations nationwide deliver the daily rants of G. Gordon Liddy, who profited from paranoia in the 1980s by running a “counterterrorism” security service for corporate executives. He even dressed his operatives in the hooded black paramilitary garb he now decries as fascistic.

During a recent Liddy blast, he merged three incidents: the bungled initial assault on the Davidian compound; a May, 1994, raid on the home of Pennsylvania gun show promoter Harry Lamplugh, and a 1992 search of the home of Ohio gun collector Louis Katona.

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In the Lamplugh case, ATF agents say they launched the raid because records showed Lamplugh was a convicted felon who is not permitted to own a firearm. He was never charged with a crime and alleges in a civil suit that agents illegally seized his property and killed his pets. The ATF denies the charges but has said it is reviewing the case and “takes these allegations very seriously.”

In the Katona case, ATF agents were investigating whether Katona had forged a police chief’s signature to obtain weapons. During a search of his home, Katona claimed, agents shoved his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. The ATF denies that any agent touched Katona’s wife.

But presenting the other side isn’t an issue. Dead certainty excludes facts. It excludes logic.

For example, various militia leaders’ videos and faxes claim that the New World Order is being imposed by the fearsome United Nations--which is, in actuality, a fractious and bureaucratically incompetent body. Many militia members also claim that the dreaded “black helicopters” belong to U.N. “multi-jurisdictional task forces” and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some folks in Arizona say they routinely see the shadowy copters following UFOs into secret canyon lairs.

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Last month, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) convened a hearing on the black helicopters in Boise because her constituents were so unnerved. Turns out the helicopters are piloted by state wildlife officers patrolling for poachers. Elsewhere in the West, they belong to the National Guard, which has been conducting surveillance of marijuana farmers for years. The alleged UFO chasers are also Army or National Guard craft, making refueling stops.

“I’ve heard that Whitewater and Waco are interconnected,” says Carole Moore, a Washington writer. She’s working on a book, commissioned by the Gun Owners of America, called “The Massacre of the Branch Davidians.”

“The rumor is that Vince Foster killed himself because he was so upset about the handling of Waco,” Moore says.

Before long, the Foster suicide will be linked to the United Nations, if it hasn’t been already. Mark Koernke, a Michigan maintenance man and purported ideological influence of bombing suspect Tim McVeigh, throws just about everything else into his “America in Peril” video, released more than a year ago. The Environmental Protection Agency has a remote-control vehicle-tracking system. Microchips will be surgically implanted as marks of the Antichrist. The United Nations has organized 300,000 troops--including Bloods and Crips and “ruthless” Nepalese Gurkha units--to round up gun owners. Koernke says they’ll be processed for the detention camps through a facility in . . . Oklahoma City.

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So what about the Great Seal of the United States and that creepy eye above the pyramid on the $1 bill?

It was adopted in 1782.

The pyramid represents “permanence and strength.”

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The all-seeing eye represents “education and freedom and knowledge.”

Why is the pyramid unfinished? Because “the United States will always grow, build and improve with the continuous evaluation of Truth.”

That’s what the government says. Specifically, the people at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Which is part of the Treasury Department. But wait. Aren’t they in charge of the ATF? What do we really know about them?


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