Jane Kramer's 'Lone Patriot': Yearning that drives fanaticism

On Books

May 26, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

I find no comfort in knowing that thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans are driven by a very close approximation of the zealotry of Muslim terrorists. That is precisely the implication of Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman, by Jane Kramer (Pantheon, 257 pages, $25).

Kramer is a staff writer for the New Yorker. She has written its "Letter from Europe" for more than 20 years and produced seven other books in the process. She chose a single man -- John Pitner -- through whom to examine the "militia" movement and its dynamics. When Kramer began interviewing him four months before his July 27, 1996, arrest, there were an estimated 800 "militias" around the country -- which Kramer estimates today has diminished to 200. By their often-secret nature, membership estimates range widely -- from 5,000, to the FBI's latest public figure of 40,000, to several hundred thousand, guessed by enthusiasts.

Most of the events of this book occur in weirdly named Whatcom County, Washington. Self-designated "Patriots," "Freemen" and militias dwell there among dropped-out hippies, loggers, born-again evangelicals and all-purpose loners. They live about as far as one can get from the dot-com world that thrives only dozens of miles away.

Pitner was convinced that David Rockefeller -- senior member of that superrich clan and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations -- leads the "New World Order." Pitner believed Rockefeller was personally terrified of him as a threat to the Order's global operations -- Wall Street, international business, the Federal Reserve System and other economic institutions, the United Nations, the FBI, environmentalists, the Trilateral Commission and more. Pitner believed he was the leader of the resistance to all he held to be evil.

Militias are self-appointed enforcers of a twisted view of what the United States should be -- loosely coordinated by newsletters, Web sites and gatherings devoted to defense of an absolutist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and especially its Second Amendment. They yearn to destroy federal, and indeed much state and local, police and taxing authority.

John Pitner, then 45 years old, was arrested in his manufactured house in a hollow near the Canadian border. He was, Kramer writes, "founder, promoter, banker, quartermaster, and commander in chief of a Patriot army he called the Washington State Militia." The charges against him were possession of destructive devices for confrontation with the Federal government, and conspiracy to make them.

His mother was insane and terribly abused him and his three older siblings, all of whom went on to lead seriously troubled lives. He was a runaway as a teen-ager. His father was a chief petty officer in the Navy who equally detested feminists and communists.

John Pitner went into the Army without finishing high school, was assigned to Panama, where he went AWOL and was otherwise offensive to military discipline. He left the Army with a "general" discharge after serving hard-labor time in the stockade. He and his wife Debbie began living together when she was 13 and he 20. With their daughter Rachel, they came to Whatcom County in 1981, when he was 30 and a part-time painter.

The area was significantly populated by the sort of people among whom prosper such enthusiasms -- Biblical fundamentalism and hatred and fear of outsiders. Kramer has an absolutely marvelous capacity to string together long, interrelated sentences that take on a musical quality and a powerful capacity to bring alive people and feelings.

She describes a sympathetic but nonviolent neighbor of Pitner's: "Sharon [Pietila] was hard put to name a subject at Mount Baker High School that didn't suffer from Satanic influence. She was the scourge of the Mount Baker school board: she wanted Darwin thrown out of the science lab (as he had apparently been at the Schome, Nooksack, and Lynden high schools) and Rachel Carson kept out of the 'connections' class and 'relativism' out of the history class and 'multiculturalism' out of the English class; she even wanted to abolish sports, which she considered subversive, on a level with education if not actually a plot on the part of faculty pedophiliacs, and which she never called 'sports' anyway, but always 'the touchy-feelies.' "

Especially after the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, the FBI and other feds were very worried about the militias. They seeded informers and imposters in such groups all over the country -- including two in Pitner's band.

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