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Book Review - A Force Upon the Plain

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 89-90. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. 

Kenneth S. Stern. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, 303 pages.

The author, Kenneth Stern, is an attorney who has served as the American Jewish Committee’s expert on hate and hate groups since 1989. He is former director of the National Organization Against Terrorism and has authored books on the holocaust and the Native American Indian movement. Oddly, this book has no table of contents. The book begins with an 8-page foreword, then proceeds through 6 parts of 26 short chapters to a postscript, acknowledgments, a 2-page appendix on paramilitary training statutes, and concludes with an impressive 33 pages of “sources,” arranged by chapter.

The book is written clearly and concisely, presenting a great deal of information, all of it relevant and to the point. The easy-to-read, journalistic style does not in any way lessen the impact or the depth of the material presented. Though based on referenced facts, it is wary and critical of the militia movement and will likely be considered “liberal” by those who support militancy over moderation and tolerance.

Early in the book, Stern shares his response to his young son who asked why the Oklahoma federal building was bombed. Stern’s first response (“by bad men”) did not satisfy the boy, so Stern added “who hate too much.” This conclusion is established throughout the remainder of the book, situation by situation, case by case. He traces the militia movement, “the fastest growing grassroots mass movement any of us have seen” (p. 13), from his interviews in Montana in 1994 to Idaho, to the Pacific northwest, and elsewhere. He describes in detail how extremists in this movement consider themselves patriots, yet commit terrorist acts. Stern estimates that there are 10,000 to 40,000 active members and “hundreds of thousands, some say millions, who sympathize with them” (p. 16). They believe that the federal government is illegitimate and must be “taken back.”

Throughout the text, underlying dynamics are probed and described. A major factor has been the demise of the Soviet Union. This occurrence removed communism as the focus of attention and as a channel for paranoia, evident in the McCarthy and John Birch years. Today’s militants are even farther to the right, according to Stern. He describes such movements as having “deep roots,” that the United States has “always had armed far-right groups with a political agenda and a hateful ideology” (p. 42). The Ku Klux Klan is one example cited. Today’s political climate is such that it is “taboo to express overt hatred for minorities,” but opposing government “is a fine and important American tradition” (p. 132). The shared paranoia of extremist militia movements, Stern contends, is generalizing now from specific agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and IRS, to all federal employees. “We now know,” he concludes, “that terrorism is not uniquely Middle Eastern in origin” (p. 244).

Today’s extremist militias appeal to a wider variety of discontented, including those advocating white supremacy, anti-Semititism, anti-income tax, and pro-gun positions. These folks were using a computer network long before the Internet, and now use the Internet and radio talk shows extensively. They see themselves as uniting against a growing evil. The communist conspiracy as enemy has been replaced with our own federal government. One militia activist is quoted as describing himself as a “natural born” and “nonresident alien” exempt from the laws of an “unincorporated state” (p. 195). These extremists see the federal government as guilty of excessive force, viewing the incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco as prime examples. The Oklahoma City bombing was payback for these actions and an effort to put the government on notice that its conspiracy must stop. With twisted logic, the Oklahoma City bombing is viewed as equal to Waco, despite Koresh’s refusal to submit to a lawful order and his stockpiling an arsenal of illegal automatic weapons and hand grenades, hardly materials needed by a bonafide religion. A Christian Coalition leader is quoted as pointing out that “Jesus was killed because there was no militia” (p. 165).

Mental health professionals concerned about extremist groups may be disappointed that the book makes no reference to such relevant concepts as Festinger’s cognitive dissonance or Freud’s thanatos libido, repression, and projection. Cult awareness leaders may be disappointed with a lack of references to cultlike aspects of the militia movement. Stern, an attorney with decades of experience in the human rights field, has produced, nevertheless, a book of very high quality, well researched and referenced, concise and comprehensive, and a valuable addition to the literature on the militia movement. Highly recommended.

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

Center for the Study of the Self

Gloucester, Virginia

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998