'93 Waco siege is rallying point for militia movement OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING

April 27, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

On the morning a murderous explosion tore through a federal building in Oklahoma, Johnny M. Johnson and other members of the Texas Constitutional Militia were in Waco, Texas, attending a memorial service for the victims of the 1993 federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound. He had been at Waco during the fiery siege itself, and left a changed man.

For the Houston businessman and thousands of like-minded "Patriots" -- the name taken by citizen militias and others who support a strict interpretation of the Constitution -- it was the point at which they decided the federal government was out of control, bent on tyranny.

"The federal government, my savior, was turning into something else based on what I saw," said Mr. Johnson, 50, a regional commander of the Texas militia.

"It is illegal, immoral and improper for the military of this country to be used against its people. That's also against the Constitution. That's what occurred in Waco, Texas."

The events at Waco became a rallying cry across the country for citizens who feared that one day soon they, too, would have to defend themselves. The 51-day siege gave disenfranchised Americans a new scapegoat, political experts and observers of the militia movement say.

Then, last week, almost as soon as the dust settled in Oklahoma City, the image of Waco was thrust to the forefront of America's effort to cope with the devastation.

It was the second anniversary of the Texas tragedy. Could Waco represent so much to a group of people that it might have prompted the terrible blast? And, if it had, why?

To many, Waco symbolized a colossal abuse of power by the government and a heinous assault on individual rights, a government so morally bankrupt it had murdered its own people.

Within months, that same government passed the Brady bill, a gun control measure viewed within the Patriot community as an attack on their constitutional "right to bear arms." Without their guns, how could they defend themselves from a tyrannical government?

"Without guns, we cannot be free," says Andrew Brown, a spokesman for the Delaware Minutemen, that state's unorganized militia.

Lastly, there was the symbolism to history-minded militiamen of April 19 -- the day the Waco siege ended.

On that same day in 1775, a contingent of Minutemen at Lexington, Mass., fired the opening rounds in the American Revolution.

Patriots invoke that "shot heard around the world" to emphasize the seriousness of their intent to protect the Constitution.

"We have a situation where a great percent of the people in our nation realize that government has become tyrannical," says Eva Vail, an Idaho resident active in the Patriot movement for 35 years.

"Now history shows when a people realize they have been enslaved, as we have been here in our nation, they begin to fight for freedom."

If the so-called Patriot movement was fledgling before Waco, the siege infused its ranks.

Patriots and militia members demanded that those responsible pay for their mistakes. They say the government has not addressed those concerns.

The Texas militia is among those calling for a congressional investigation of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI and their actions during the Waco siege. Four ATF agents were killed in the raid, and more than a dozen were wounded.

The standoff that followed ended April 19, 1993, when fire engulfed the Branch Davidian compound and leader David Koresh and more than 70 of his followers died.

If Waco became a touchstone for would-be militiamen, it also helped forge a common ground among militia members and tax protesters, state's rights activists, survivalists, Libertarians, even white supremacists, according to political experts and observers the movements.

"The thread that holds all these groups together is their extreme hatred and distrust of the federal government," said Morris Dees, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, which issued a report on the militia movement last year.

After Waco, the propaganda machines of the militias and others began spewing out conspiracy theories about the "new world order" and the government's desire to turn America into a police state.

Videotapes such as "America Under Siege" and "Waco: The Big Lie" are hot properties in Patriot circles. Once confined to the rhetoric of right-wing extremists, the conspiracy theories found a place in the discourse of middle America.

"A huge factor of the American population feels totally disenfranchised from the political process and don't feel their elected officials are best representing their interests," said Tarso Ramos, a researcher at Portland, Ore.-based Western States Center. "These different kinds of movements are appealing to this angry insecurity."

Now, the disenfranchised blame not only minorities, gays, Jews, abortion providers and environmentalists for their problems, the experts say.

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