Web sites give small militia a big voice

Members seem fewer, but messages have a long reach

Pioneer Press, August 29, 1999
By David Hanners

Viewed from the road, Nimrod is a small farming community with about 60 people. But seen from the Internet, the town is big proof that anyone with a beef and a modem can spread their beliefs around the world.

It's from Nimrod that Coleman David Rydie, who turned 21 this month, runs the web site of the Minnesota Minuteman Militia. The group has taken it upon itself to "uphold and protect, from enemies foreign and domestic, the original constitutions of the State of Minnesota and the united States of America." (The group refuses to capitalize the "U" in United States.)

Lest there be any confusion about the group's worldview, visitors to its home page are greeted by a drawing of three men in assault garb with automatic weapons, about to break through a door. They are wearing U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms jackets and United Nations armbands.

The site and others like it in Minnesota support the view of experts who say that while the numbers of self-styled militia and so-called "patriot" groups are dwindling, the Internet has given them an unprecedented ability to spread their views to a wider -- and younger -- audience.

In effect, their Internet bark is bigger than their numerical bite, said Boston College communications professor Michael Keith.

"Having a Web site gives tremendous credibility to these groups. They could be the product of two people sitting at home, but when they put them up with all these graphics and links, it really looks like something," said Keith, author of the newly published book "Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right."

"Somebody asked me where these people get the resources to do it," said Keith. "What resources do you need? More and more, you can design your own site. You can do it for next to nothing. They have a huge, bright, shiny neon billboard out there across the globe, which cost them almost nothing."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups and their activities, says that while the number of patriot groups has dropped 50 percent since 1996, the number of Web sites has almost doubled, to an estimated 248 such sites last year.

"On the one hand, the Internet has greatly expanded the recruitment and propaganda reach of these groups," said Mark Potok of the center, based in Montgomery, Ala. "On the other hand, it has often made particular groups seem far larger than they actually are."

Despite that, the law center and others say the Web sites need close monitoring because sometimes, their more violent visitors turn to action. Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21 -- who in July went on a drive-by shooting spree in which he shot Jews, blacks and Asians -- was featured on a racist Web site in November for his efforts to distribute racist literature. He killed two and wounded nine in Illinois and Indiana before taking his own life when police caught up with him.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teens who in April killed 12 classmates and a teacher at a Colorado high school before killing themselves, were also frequent visitors to such Web sites, friends said. In fact, Harris had his own web page, which included detailed plans for making bombs.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists eight militia and patriot groups in Minnesota. Aside from the Minutemen and two allied groups, they include Citizens for a Constitutional Minnesota, Minnesota Constitutional Rangers, Citizens for a Constitutional Republic, Minnesota Militia and the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

Attempts to reach these militia and patriot groups met with limited success. Phone listings are non-existent and not all of them have web pages. Rydie of the Minnesota Minuteman Militia did not return phone messages. An e-mail to him requesting an interview brought this reply: "Our organization has a policy of not talking to reporters (due to the fact of past negative reporting on groups like ours.)"

A similar request for an interview e-mailed to the Minnesota Minuteman Militia-4th Region brought this response from someone known as "Raider45": "No thanks," wrote Raider45. "We've seen enough liberal media characterizations in the papers, heard them on radio, and watched them on TV. I suggest you do a nice no-news article about a nice little orphan puppy in one of TC (Twin Cities) surrounding suburbs or something.

"Or maybe," Raider45 continued, "you can do another NEW HOMELESS (7/1/98) story where you only publish the emotional plea for new housing for all those `hard working' people . . . but nothing regarding how these same people very often do not take care and maintain the housing the government subsidizes, or how a great majority of police time is dedicated to policing these low income, parasitic, section 8 infestations. . . .

"You liberal hack; we have no time for you."

Many of the state's militia groups seem to be located in rural areas, and that's not unusual, said Don Haider-Markel, who grew up near Lindstrom, Minn., and now teaches political science at the University of Kansas.

"Part of the problem is that even after the recession of the early 1990s, once the economy started turning around, in outstate things really haven't changed much," said Haider-Markel, who has researched militia and patriot groups. "The economic growth has largely occurred in the suburbs and the cities. It's kind of ironic to be sitting around constantly barraged by news of how great things are in the country, and you're not really seeing any of it."

It's only natural that such groups should use the Internet, said Haider-Markel.

"It gives them an exposure that they never had before," he said. "If you look at past movements that would be similar, groups like anti-communist groups, they were forced to communicate with each other with simple mailings. Their growth potential was low.

"Now it's easy to communicate ideas across the country," he said. "Some of the first groups to take major advantage of the Internet were militia groups and hate groups. By being able to attract people from around the country, they have an instant platform for their views."

People who monitor such groups say that their numbers grew after the 1995 bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City. Then has since been a steady decline in membership, said Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"There are hundreds of men who got tired of dressing up in camos (camouflage outfits) and waiting for the revolution that never came, and now have gone back to watching TV with their families and drinking beer at home," he said. "And the patriot groups, as a general proposition, are becoming more like hate groups. There's clearly a hardening of the movement. It's a leaner, meaner movement."

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