Despite the harsh glare of the public spotlight, the militia movement appears to have grown substantially since the Oklahoma City bombing nearly two months ago, according to a new Anti-Defamation League report.
Militia groups, many of which spout angry anti-government rhetoric or conduct paramilitary training, have sprung up in 40 states, according to the ADL study, "Beyond the Bombing: The Militia Menace Grows." Active membership is estimated in the report at 15,000.
In California, where civil rights monitoring groups had identified only a handful of militia activists before the April 19 federal building bombing, there are now about 35 operating militia groups, according to the ADL. Among the areas with active militias, some of which are moderate and some more radical in their outlook, are Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, Alameda, Marin, Santa Clara, Butte and Kern counties, according to the report.
"While we tracked a disturbing growth of militia groups between October and April, we were especially distressed to discover the movement continued to grow even after the devastation in Oklahoma City," said David A. Lehrer, director of the ADL's regional office in Los Angeles. "As long as there are people willing to actively buy into the incendiary, paranoid propaganda of extremist militia leaders, we must take them seriously and remain alert to the threats they pose."
Scholars and several militia leaders contacted Friday agreed with the ADL's findings that the militia movement is growing in membership.
"Cleary, most of what has been said publicly both by officials and others has been critical," said Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University political science professor who wrote a book last year on the racist right. "But notwithstanding that, or ironically, perhaps because of it, people with a strong anti-government bias to begin with may have been attracted to them. . . . People who might have been predisposed to join but were unaware of their existence may have joined."
D.R. Clark, director of the San Diego-based Militia of California, which requires members to sign an oath to obey all government laws, echoed that membership in his group has grown "by leaps and bounds" in recent weeks.
No matter what the context of media coverage, "it's like free advertising," said Karen Gentry, an affiliate of the Kern County Liberty Corps.
The ADL's findings mirror those in a recent report by Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identified 224 militias and support groups active in 39 states. About 20% of the groups have ties to neo-Nazi and other white supremacist organizations, according to Klanwatch.
ADL officials say they are not sure just how many new militias have sprouted since the Oklahoma bombing, nor how many had quietly formed previously without having drawn public attention. ADL leaders also caution that not all militia groups have a violent or racist bent.
For example, an ADL research document on California militias states that members of a group called the Orange County Corps describe their organization as the equivalent of a Neighborhood Watch committee. Clark's group is described as "moderate" by the ADL.
There is, however, a disturbing outlook shared by many paramilitary activists and non-militia ideologues, said ADL Associate Western States Counsel Barbara H. Bergen.
"Finding conspiracies in every activity of the government is the common denominator of these groups, whether violent or passive," Bergen said. "The concern is that those theories extend to become the explanation of anything that's unpleasant or unacceptable in the lives of the people who belong, so they begin to believe their only recourse is some sort of violent response."
In Los Angeles County, right-wing political groups including the Granada Forum of the San Fernando Valley have hosted speeches by activists including Bob Fletcher of the Militia of Montana, which distributes catalogues that include bomb-making manuals and whose founder once spoke at a major conference of the white supremacist Aryan Nations, according to the ADL.
Without question, observers say, militias are drawing unprecedented public attention. Last week, militia leaders from across the nation--some predicting that "armed conflict" may soon arise between citizens and the federal government--appeared in a televised congressional hearing.
The two men charged in the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, were apparently not members of any militia organization. However, they did share the radical ideology espoused by many leaders of the militia movement.