Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Oath Keepers’ Paranoia

Mother Jones has a profile of the Oath Keepers, a new right wing group made up almost entirely of military and law enforcement personnel. It starts out benignly enough:

There are scores of patriot groups, but what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution–but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey “unconstitutional” orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.

Okay, good start. All soldiers and police officers should pledge not to obey unconstitutional orders from their superiors. That should be a given. And the group uses this to say that those who see them as a threat are wrong because they are only about what they won’t do, not what they actually would ever do. But the ideology that spawns this is far deeper and more dangerous than that.

THE .50 CALIBER Bushmaster bolt action rifle is a serious weapon. The model that Pvt. 1st Class Lee Pray is saving up for has a 2,500-yard range and comes with a Mark IV scope and an easy-load magazine. When the 25-year-old drove me to a mall in Watertown, New York, near the Fort Drum Army base, he brought me to see it in its glass case–he visits it periodically, like a kid coveting something at the toy store. It’ll take plenty of military paychecks to cover the $5,600 price tag, but he considers the Bushmaster essential in his preparations to take on the US government when it declares martial law…

Most of the men’s gripes revolve around policies that began under President Bush but didn’t scare them so much at the time. “Too many conservatives relied on Bush’s character and didn’t pay attention,” founder Rhodes told me. “Only now, with Obama, do they worry and see what has been done. I trusted Bush to only go after the terrorists. But what do you think can happen down the road when they say, ‘I think you are a threat to the nation?'”

In Pray’s estimate, it might not be long (months, perhaps a year) before President Obama finds some pretext–a pandemic, a natural disaster, a terror attack–to impose martial law, ban interstate travel, and begin detaining citizens en masse. One of his fellow Oath Keepers, a former infantryman, advised me to prepare a “bug out” bag with 39 items including gas masks, ammo, and water purification tablets, so that I’d be ready to go “when the shit hits the fan.”

When it does, Pray and his buddies plan to go AWOL and make their way to their “fortified bunker”–the home of one comrade’s parents in rural Idaho–where they’ve stocked survival gear, generators, food, and weapons. If it becomes necessary, they say, they will turn those guns against their fellow soldiers.

This kind of paranoia can be enormously dangerous. It is what breeds the kind of whackos who blow up government buildings. Such paranoid conspiracy theories (whether believed by the left or the right — if there’s even a difference once you get to such extremes) drive people to take violent action to prevent their dystopic fantasies from coming true. And the more imminent they believe that future to be, the more likely they are to take violent action to prevent it.

And yes, left and right extremes do blend together in this group:

Now Pray is both a Birther and a Truther. He believes he is following an illegitimate, foreign-born president in a war on terror launched by a government plot–9/11. He admires soldiers like Army reservist Major Stefan Frederick Cook, who volunteered for a deployment last May and then sued to avoid it–claiming that Obama is not a natural-born citizen and is thus unfit for command. Pray himself had been eager to go to Iraq when his own unit deployed last June, but he smashed both knees falling from a crane rig and the injuries kept him stateside. In September, he was demoted from specialist to private first class–he’d been written up for bullshit infractions, he claims, after seeking help for a drinking problem. His job on base involves operating and maintaining heavy machinery; the day before we met, he and his fellow “undeployables” had attached a snowplow to a Humvee, their biggest assignment in a while. He spends idle hours at the now-quiet base researching the New World Order and conspiracies about swine flu quarantine camps–and doing his best to “wake up” other soldiers.

Yes, this kind of paranoia really is dangerous. It’s also unnecessary; there’s plenty of dystopic things our government genuinely is doing, enough that we have no need to invent crazy scenarios of concentration camps in our future.