Wolverine Watchmen: Militia or terrorists?

Ten of 13 suspects accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting the kidnapping and likely murder of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are members of or affiliated with, armed militias. Like the ones I’ve written about frequently in this space.

What they were planning were acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. JJ McNabb, of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why:

Oh good grief. “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is.

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

According to militia expert Amy Cooter, of Vanderbilt University, militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories:

Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action. 

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed anti-lockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the later kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude.

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our fuckin’ state down. I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the US government.

I’ve written at some length before about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish then using either label alone.

We’ll see if he was right

(Credit: Pia Guerra, The Nib)

Remember this quote from January 2016?

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Only in 2020 Donald Trumps didn’t need a gun. All he needed was a hefty viral load of SARS-COV 2 and a callous disregard for others‘ safety, perhaps even their very survival.

Meanwhile, the West Wing outbreak continues to grow, with more than a dozen people in the president’s close orbit infected, and the potential for hundreds of additional cases among his donors, supporters, and their friends and families spread out from Duluth, Minn. to Doral, Fla.

But if you thought he’d come out of this experience in any way chastened, or at least empathetic for the plight of the 7.4 million other Americans who have contracted the virus, none of whom have access to the kind of medical treatment that he received, or the families and loved ones of the more than 205,000 who have died, think again.

I guess those folks were losers and suckers too.

So was he right? Could Trump stand in the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose any voters? We’ll find out in a few short weeks.

Music for a Friday — ‘Gunfighter Ballads’

Boy do we need a diversion right now. At this rate October is going to last until 2022. From the debacle that was the first presidential debate to the revelation that the president has contracted COVID-19, we’re off to a helluva start.

So let’s change the mood and talk about one of the great albums of all time, Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Released by Columbia Records in September 1959, the album was recorded in a single eight-hour session earlier that year.

In an appreciation over at the website Medium, Brian Braunlich writes:

It’s truly odd listening to an album like Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs in the midst of the Corona crisis. The tunes are not hopeful or optimistic for the most part, but the feeling of listening to these warm campfire tunes is nostalgic for a more hopeful time, when the villains were simple (and human), the stories easy to follow, the problems invented or retold and not lived. It’s … kind of comforting.

“El Paso” on this record is evidently the first Country song to win a Grammy, and it’s well deserved. A beautifully tragic story filling its space with rich details of Rose’s Cantina, the beautiful Fellina’s eyes, the slow fade of death. It soars, a perfect classic country song.

Robbins as a songwriter is responsible for the real gems here — “El Paso,” but also “Big Iron,” which kicks the album off on a strong note. “The Master’s Call” later is another strong contribution. But the remainder of the more traditional country ballads or tunes here are well presented by Robbins and his band.

While I was familiar with some of the songs, “El Paso” in particular, I only recently became acquainted with the full album, picking up a vinyl copy at the urging of my college-senior son who has long been a fan. In fact, the first time I heard “Big Iron” was during a jam session in my living room, performed by that same son. He also does some mean Johnny Cash stuff, but that’s a story for another post.

It’s a classic album for a reason. Pick up a copy if you can, and for the full impact, make it vinyl. Check out this really good video from Esoteric Internet, giving the story behind the album and, in particular, the archetypal gunfighter song, “Big Iron.”

And here’s the song itself.

Duck and Cover

How to prepare for tonight’s presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in the first of three presidential debates tonight starting at 9 pm. And while I’d like to treat it like the fellow above, I’ve got to watch it so I can sound smart on the radio tomorrow. Because misery loves company, you should watch it too.

So what should we watch for? Well, the New York Times suggests this is Trump’s best chance to change the narrative of a race where he’s lagging far behind. So from Trump expect a lot of personal attacks on Biden and his family, and a loose relationship with facts and the truth. Biden has to avoid taking Trump’s bait and keep rein on his temper and emotions.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post points out that Trump hasn’t really prepared, believing his experience as president is preparation enough, and testing out attack lines on close aides and with rally audiences; moderator Chris Wallace doesn’t intend to act as a live fact checker; and any slips of Biden’s will likely pale besides those of his counterpart.

Over at Politico, the writers compile what they expect to be the “10 biggest whoppers” told on the stage tonight. Brace yourself for this, but they expect most of these — 7 out of 10 — will come from Trump.

John Dickerson at The Atlantic reminds us that debates are about more than facts. Rather they are a window into a candidate’s temperament, character, and style of leadership. As I suggested last week, I think we have that covered when it comes to Donald Trump. But we might see something interesting about Joe Biden tonight. Besides, the burden of fact checking really ought to be on us as viewers.

Finally, will tonight’s debate really matter? Well, according to the folks at fivethirtyeight.com, first debates tend to help the challenger more than the incumbent, though that may not play out this time around. There are frankly too few undecided voters left to be persuaded. And Biden may have the most to lose because he’s so far ahead.

So there you go. You can read all of that, or just take it like the guy in the photo. I know which one I’d choose if I could.

If you’re curious about that photo, it’s a still from the classic 1951 Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover,” starring Bert the Turtle. Watch it here.