This afternoon I learned that an armed militia group has occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. As I peruse twitter and read about the militants’ calls for all true patriots to bring their guns and join them, I am reminded of the summers I spent as a teen at a small camp in the midwest in the early 2000s. We didn’t drill or shoot guns—the camp was held at state parks, and I suspect that wasn’t permitted—and the camp was ostensibly about teaching young people how “true” constitutional principles and Christian religion, not about creating a paramilitary force. Still, every time something like this happens I am taken back to those summers and that camp.
It was at that camp that I learned about the ostensibly unlawful federal control of much of the U.S. land mass. We talked about the possibility of declaring your individual land sovereign territory, and personally seceding from the U.S. We learned about individuals who had done just that, and about the government’s unlawful attempts to collect property taxes from these sovereign citizens. It was clear that the camp leaders and speakers were inspired by the ostensible “patriotism” of these individuals, whether or not they personally took this path themselves.
We learned other things about land too. For example, we were taught that in the early 1990s a U.N. agreement very nearly turned the vast, vast majority of the U.S. into uninhabitable nature preserves. Years later I became curious and looked this up. What I found was Agenda 21. According to the Daily Beast:
While the name might sound a bit ominous, Agenda 21 is a voluntary action plan that offers suggestions for sustainable ways local, state and national governments can combat poverty and pollution and conserve natural resources in the 21st century. (That’s where the ’21’ comes from. Get it?) 178 governments—including the U.S. led by then-President George H.W. Bush—voted to adopt the program which is, again, not legally binding in any way, at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the speakers told us that back when the agreement was being discussed he read through the entire thing and taken a map and marked up what land would be considered inhabitable and what land would be completely off limits to humans, as dictated by the agreement’s provisions. He told us that the map he created left only tiny slivers for human habitation, and that he was able to present the map to Congress in time to prevent Congress from implementing the agreement. We listened in awe, thankful that we were not living in the futuristic dystopia he outlined.
There was a lot of talk about the overreach of the federal government, but there was even more talk about the overreach of the U.N. One of the speakers explained us that the U.N. was seeking to take control of the world through environmental treaties, which were illustrated as ropes binding independent countries so that their sovereignty disappeared. In fact, we were taught that environmentalism itself was a U.N. conspiracy to take over the world. I nodded in agreement, moved by the speakers’ insistence that we must get the U.S. out of the U.N.
In keeping with this opposition to environmentalism, we learned that “shoot, shovel, and shut up” was the correct response for landowners dealing with endangered species on their land. After all, what the federal government didn’t know about it couldn’t prosecute, and environmentalism was a way for the federal government to exert unlawful and oppressive control over private property. We learned that the Environmental Protection Agency itself was illegitimate, and that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act should never have been passed. OSHA violations resulted in extra points during cabin inspections.
We were taught that the ideal position was to be an independent business owner living on one’s own property and homeschooling one’s children—that such a household was not beholden to anyone. I can’t remember whether this ideal included alternative energy sources and a reliance on well water, though I’m sure it would today. I do remember some emphasis on prepping, and there was a definite emphasis on gun ownership—indeed, we were taught that gun ownership was central to being a free and independent citizen, rather than a slave of the government.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the songs we sang around the campfire at night. I wish I had saved a copy of the camp songbook, because it was quite a specimen. Some of the songs were your standard patriotic songs, but others were far, far different. There were anti-UN songs, for example, and anti-government songs—ironic for an ostensibly patriotic camp. And perhaps that is the central irony of the camp. The camp’s byline was “where God’s Word and patriotism go hand in hand,” and yet the camp’s content was soundly and profoundly anti-government.
A lot of the things I’ve said above may seem a bit kooky, but you have to understand the atmosphere of the camp. Quite a number of the parents stayed, interested in hearing the speakers themselves. Indeed, the respect they showed toward the speakers spoke volumes to me, as a child. We were told that we were incredibly blessed to have important experts take the time to come speak at our camp, and that we should not take our opportunity to learn at their feet for granted. Who was I to question people my parents held in high esteem as experts? I lapped up every word.
At this camp I learned the ideas that motivate today’s militia movement, including those currently occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. We may not have practiced our marksmanship, but we learned that federal control of Western land is illegitimate and that the government had become oppressive to private property rights and the liberties of independent citizens. We were taught to see the government as illegitimate, and were told that guns and ammunition were central to protecting our rights and freedoms from this illegitimate and oppressive force. These are the ideas that inform today’s armed militia members in their occupation of federal land.
Ironically, some the things I was taught at this camp, as well as at home, ultimately prompted me to question and reject the conservative mindset I adopted as a teen. Both my parents and the camp speakers urged me to question experts and think for myself. They believed this would inoculate me against the liberal party line, but didn’t realize I wouldn’t stop there. When some of the things I’d learned didn’t line up I realized I needed to question conservative experts as well as liberal experts, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over time I came to understand that no citizen is truly independent of every other citizen, that we are all interconnected. I realized that even a private business owner living on their own land and homeschooling their children relies on government roads and government police forces, to scratch the surface. This sort of militia ideology ignores the social contract, the importance of our interdependency and the necessity of the government in providing for the public welfare. This is where the militia movement, and with its anti-government ideology, fails.
Still, as long as I live, I will always remember those summers at militia camp.