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By James A. Haught

When the Christian Patriot “militia” movement flowered in my state, most people thought it was a joke. The chaplain of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, the Rev. Butch Paugh, solemnly told news reporters that armed believers must train to fight off foreign invaders controlled by Satan. “The United Nations forces worldwide are going to be the powers that help enforce the Antichrist’s dictates,” he warned.

The militia’s commander, Ray Looker, said troops of the “New World Order” would seize America in the summer of 1995. He said the intruders would disarm “patriots” and haul them to hidden concentration camps, following secret marks on the backs of road signs. Mysterious black helicopters reportedly were swooping in preparation. His militia volunteers were training to be resistance fighters.

Later, Pastor Paugh demanded special driver’s licenses for his followers, on grounds that new photo cards with bar codes are the biblical “mark of the beast.” The minister, who has a national radio show, told reporters: “This is a total takeover by the beast system and a plan to ID everyone on the planet.”

As militias grew in the 1990s, they seemed comical – but they really weren’t funny. A few of the armed wackos hatched murder plots. Commander Looker, who said he has a doctorate in theology, was charged with planning to blow up an FBI fingerprint center in West Virginia. Federal agents said he also plotted to assassinate Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in a “holy war” against the government. In his defense, Looker claimed that an FBI informant, wired with a secret recorder, lured him into making bombs and talking of murder.

The commander eventually pleaded guilty and drew eighteen years in prison. Some of his lieutenants got shorter terms. From his cell, Looker filed a lawsuit protesting that the warden wouldn’t provide him special worship services as a Messianic Jew who believes that Jesus was the messiah of Judaism. He published little-known books on the topic.

The 1990s were a heyday of the militia movement, which varied from state to state, group to group. Thousands of members belonged to hundreds of known units. The adherents were extreme right-to-bear-arms zealots who felt that the sinister federal government wanted to disarm them, leaving them defenseless. They frequented gun shows, wrote newsletters and preached their views on the Internet.

Many were attached to the racist “Christian Identity” movement, which teaches that the “lost tribes of Israel” migrated to England, eventually producing America’s settlers – thus white Americans actually are God’s “chosen people.” Leaders contend that non-whites are “mud people,” that gays must be executed, and that Jews were fathered by Satan.

A slightly different branch, neo-Nazis in America’s far Midwest, armed themselves to battle ZOG, the Zionist Occupational Government they expected to seize America and rule with black police.

After Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 unsuspecting people, his links to militia figures triggered a national crackdown. Ex-soldier McVeigh thought the Army had planted a computer chip in his rump to track him. (The Michigan Militia’s pastor-commander said the Oklahoma bombing was committed by the Japanese government.)

After Oklahoma City, federal informants infiltrated paramilitary groups. When FBI agents attempted to arrest members for possessing illicit weapons and bombs, various shootouts occurred. An eighty-day siege ensued in 1996 at a Montana ranch operated by “Freemen.” They finally surrendered and fourteen were charged. The following year, Republic of Texas Militia members seized hostages and holed up — but they too surrendered after a week, and leaders went to prison. Two chiefs of the North American Militia drew half-century sentences for terrorist plots.

After many prosecutions, the militia movement shrank. It exists today as a remnant among gun extremists. In 2009, a Homeland Security analysis warned that such groups may try to recruit bitter veterans like McVeigh returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano told CNN that “groups far too numerous to mention” were seeking ex-soldiers as terrorism recruits.

The Anti-Defamation League said: “New militia groups continue to form, and in some states, like Georgia and West Virginia, where groups virtually disappeared following the major arrests in 1996, the movement has become active again.”

In 2007, five members of the Alabama Free Militia were charged with plotting to machine-gun Mexicans working in a rural town. Federal agents confiscated hundreds of homemade hand grenades and other weapons from the Alabamans.

America’s far-right extremist fringe has many faces, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Aryan Nations to Posse Comitatus to the National Alliance to white-supremacy skinheads. Many of the faces involve crackpot Christianity. None of them is funny.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This article originally appeared in the August 5, 2009 issue.)