Vanderbilt sociologist Amy Cooter has been studying right-wing “militia” movements for a long time, up close, so she has some helpful insights about the angry white men behind the recent terrorism plot in Michigan, “Lessons from embedding with the Michigan militia – 5 questions answered about the group allegedly plotting to kidnap a governor.”
It’s not clear that “plotting to kidnap a governor” is really what these guys were about. As Cooter notes, they regarded Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a “tyrant” due to the (not-at-all “tyrannical”) measures Michigan’s government took to contain the spread of a deadly pandemic. No one has ever regarded kidnapping as an appropriate response to “tyranny.” Especially not a bunch of riled up, radicalized white supremacist gang members who like to go around quoting John Wilkes Booth’s “sic semper tyrannis.” Booth never thought about trying to kidnap Abraham Lincoln.
What these heavily armed racist bozos were fantasizing about was not a kidnapping plot including ransom or any other kind of hostage-taking demands. They only spoke of “kidnapping” because they wanted to hold a kangaroo-court trial before executing the governor. They wanted to kill her, to kill a whole bunch of police officers and elected officials, and to ignite a civil war. That was their fantasy and, to the extent that this group was capable of planning, that was their “plan.”
The horrifying scale of that fantasy leads Cooter to consider the question “Were they a serious threat?”
As a specialist on Michigan militias, I’ve been asked several times since the news broke whether this group posed a real threat, in terms of being likely to act on its plan and kidnap or harm Gov. Whitmer.
Members of other militia groups in the state reported to me after the arrests that they do not believe these men were “smart enough” to pull off anything like this.
I heard similar comments about the suspected weaknesses of Hutaree members a decade ago. In 2010, nine members of that group, another Michigan militia, were arrested on federal charges that they planned a series of events to kill large numbers of police officers. Those charges were ultimately dismissed by a federal judge who said all they were doing was talking, though a few of the group were convicted of more minor charges involving weapons possession.
I understand what people are getting at with this question, but it’s still not a helpful question. Their plot was seriously threatening, and thus requires being taken seriously regardless of whether or not they had the skills or the smarts to execute it exactly as they imagined.
Think of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The Columbine shooters were a pair of much younger and less capable angry white supremacists whose grandiose scheme was far beyond anything they might have been “seriously” capable of carrying out, yet that plan still ended with 15 dead and thousands more traumatized. Their master plan involved blowing up roads and bridges, killing scores of police, and, ultimately, crashing a plane filled with explosives in New York City.
Fortunately, they were not “smart enough to pull off anything like that,” but the basic gist of their plan — get a lot of guns and use them to kill a lot of people — wasn’t something that required any level of smarts. That same basic “plan” was the main element of the scheme that these Michigan militia members are accused of plotting. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were “smart enough to pull it off,” what matters is that they were dumb enough to try.
The link above is to an old CNN report on the journals kept by 18-year-old Harris, which were found after he and Klebold killed 12 fellow students, a teacher, and then themselves in their Colorado high school. “The journals were found in Harris’ bedroom by police following the [then] deadliest school shooting in U.S. history,” the report says. “Several parents of the students killed at Columbine believe if these journals had been found before April 1999, the attack could have been prevented.”
That’s likely true. The attack likely could have been prevented, because those journals described a “serious threat.” The fact that Harris’ journals included “numerous misspellings” and rambling grammatical errors did not, in any way, lessen the seriousness of that threat. A seething, irrational human time-bomb of inchoate hatred may pose a different kind of threat than one posed by an evil genius criminal mastermind, but not a less dangerous or less “serious” one.
The same is true for the haphazard scheme plotted by the white supremacist terrorists of the Michigan “militia.” Just because they weren’t remotely capable of succeeding in their plan to overthrow the state government to establish an independent nation of white “sovereign citizens” doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of killing a whole lot people in their efforts to do so. They had a huge stockpile of guns, and it doesn’t take a criminal mastermind to pull a trigger.
As historian Kathleen Belew says in her piece for The Washington Post, “This isn’t just a one-off event or the work of a few mad actors — it’s part of a rising tide of white power activity, one that poses an imminent danger to American democracy.”
White supremacist terrorism is a tinderbox and we’ve now got a president flicking matches at it. It’s a serious threat that serious people should take seriously.