Mother Jones says they represent “the Age of Treason.” Bill O’Reilly believes they’re “pretty extreme.” When Rob Waters of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about the group, he called on the government to “ensure that the armed forces are not inadvertently training future domestic terrorists.”
They’re talking about the Oath Keepers, a coalition of current and former military, police, and other public officials. And what treasonous, terrorist tactic have these extremists adopted? They have pledged not to obey unconstitutional commands.
Search the group’s founding document and the closest thing you will find to a call to violence is the statement that, should a dictatorship be imposed and a popular uprising break out, its members will not only refuse to fire on the dissenters but will “join them in fighting against those who dare attempt to enslave them.” And even then the “fighting” needn’t necessarily be armed. (They also say they aren’t “advocating or promoting violence towards any organization, group or person.”) Otherwise, the manifesto is a call to stand down, not to rise up. Not every Oath Keeper would appreciate the comparison, but the group has more in common with those dissidents of the ’60s who refused to go to war than with any paramilitary cell.
If you wanted to find a theoretical discussion of Oath Keepers’ plans, you wouldn’t turn to a text on terrorism or guerrilla warfare. You would open the second book of Gene Sharp’s three-volume classic on civil disobedience, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and turn to the section headlined “Action by Government Personnel.” In “an essentially nonviolent struggle,” Sharp writes, “a mutiny may express itself entirely through the refusal to carry out usual functions of forcing the regime’s will on the populace or waging war against a foreign enemy.” In addition, “police or others may selectively refuse certain orders on a scale too limited to be described accurately as mutiny.” The examples he offers range from the British occupation of India, where a regiment refused to fire on a peaceful protest, to the Nazi occupation of Norway, where policemen frequently flouted the Germans’ orders.
In the current case, there are ten commands the Oath Keepers have forsworn. Those who join the group must refuse
• to disarm the American people
• to conduct warrantless searches of the American people, their homes, vehicles, papers, or effects
• to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to trial by military tribunal
• to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state, or to enter with force into a state, without the express consent and invitation of that state’s legislature and governor
• to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union
• to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps
• to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext
• to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people
• to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies, under any emergency pretext whatsoever
• to do anything that would “infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances”
Looking at that list, three things immediately come to mind. The first is that resisting such orders should not be controversial—or at the very least, should not be considered outside the boundaries of normal debate. The item about states asserting sovereignty will raise hackles in some quarters, though it’s rooted in the fact that several legislatures are considering resolutions that lean in that direction. Otherwise these are orders that anyone with civil-libertarian instincts would reject on their face. Appearing on MSNBC in March, Crazy for God author Frank Schaeffer dismissed the group as malcontents who think they could “break the law and not follow orders if they don’t like what they’re being told.” But these are not merely instructions the members “don’t like.” They are commands that would be illegal under the Constitution.
Second, some of the orders are not very likely. Membership in the Oath Keepers often correlates with an affinity for dubious conspiracy theories, and that in turn has led the group to embrace some fears without much foundation. Despite decades of rumors, the feds have yet to reestablish the internment camps that held Japanese-American citizens in World War II. And the chances that foreign troops will occupy American soil any time in the near future are pretty low—though if they do show up, I’ll gladly endorse the Oath Keepers’ refusal to assist them.
Third, several of the other orders are likely. Indeed, some have already happened. If the Oath Keepers are overly prone to see secret plots against our liberties, that’s because open plots against our liberties have been so successful. American police forces infringe on free speech and assembly at almost every major political summit. An American citizen, José Padilla, was famously tried before a military tribunal as an enemy combatant. Cops confiscated legal firearms from peaceful citizens following Hurricane Katrina. And speaking of Katrina, if you thought the item about blockading cities belonged on the “not very likely” list, think again. When victims of the storm attempted to flee across the Crescent City Connection bridge to Jefferson Parish, they were forced back by armed agents of the Gretna, Louisiana police. If there had been some Oath Keepers on the force that day, those refugees might have escaped the devastation.
If the Oath Keepers’ agenda isn’t objectionable, why the panic? Partly it’s the general fear of “right-wing extremists” that has taken hold of so much of the media, a narrative that allows ordinarily sensible people to conflate all manner of dissident groups. (Obviously, you needn’t be on the Right to join the Oath Keepers, but the membership does tilt in that direction.) There’s also a suspicion that the group’s concern with civil liberties is only skin deep. If they’re so committed to constitutional protections, critics ask, where were they during the Bush years?
In fact, while the group wasn’t launched until early 2009, it had been germinating for a while. The founder—a veteran, Yale law grad, and former Ron Paul aide named Stewart Rhodes—spoke out about the state of civil liberties throughout the Bush era, writing angrily about the militarization of police work, the expansion of federal power during wartime, and the repression that followed Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, for example, he warned that “the Pentagon and its close allies, the defense contractors, turned to the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘terrorism’ as the new cash-crop reason for the bloated Pentagon budget”—not exactly a standard Red Team complaint. There may be people in the organization who showed little concern for the Bill of Rights from the first month of 2001 through the first month of 2009. But that problem isn’t found at the top.
Some of the group’s critics claim that even if it isn’t violent, Oath Keepers could inflame people who are. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he wasn’t “accusing Stewart Rhodes or any member of his group of being Timothy McVeigh or a future Timothy McVeigh.” But the organization was spreading paranoia, he argued, and “these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence.”
Radical rhetoric does sometimes attract shady characters, and in two cases people linked to the Oath Keepers have been charged with criminal violence. The first occurred in April 2009, when Daniel Knight Hayden—or “Citizen Quasar,” as he called himself—declared his support for the Oath Keepers on his Twitter feed while also announcing his plans to start a shootout at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Hayden wasn’t a part of the organization, though, and Rhodes quickly denounced him as a “nutbag.”
More recently, a man who did have ties to the group—Marine Sgt. Charles Dyer—was arrested on child-molestation charges. While searching his house, police found a grenade launcher that officials say was stolen from a military base. Rhodes quickly distanced himself from the accused, but not very adeptly: he scrubbed references to Dyer from the Oath Keepers’ website, including one that said the man would “represent” the group at a Tea Party rally. After the arrest, Rhodes announced that Dyer “never became an actual member” of the organization since Rhodes disapproved of Dyer’s plan “to train and help organize private militias across the country when he got out of the Marines.” That may be true. Still, Dyer was clearly associated with Rhodes’s group. More importantly, if Dyer is guilty on the weapons charge, that might seem to support the position that the Oath Keeper worldview encourages insurrectionary force.
But there are two problems with Potok’s thesis. The first is that there isn’t any sign that the organization drove Hayden or Dyer to violence. Hayden was unhinged to begin with, and he was spouting New World Order theories long before the Oath Keepers existed; they were simply one convenient symbol to grab as he justified his plans. Rhodes did everything he could after Hayden’s arrest to make it clear that such kamikaze assaults were not what his operation was about. Hayden was “threatening to kill police officers,” he noted, and that’s “not very compatible with an organization made up of police officers and military. That’s not even an example of someone ‘taking it too far,’ it is comparing apples to oranges.” Dyer, too, was interested in the conspiracy theories that worry Potok before he encountered the Oath Keepers. And if he is guilty of the charges against him, he was a criminally violent person to begin with. He is accused, after all, of raping a 7-year-old girl.
That leads to the second problem with Potok’s theory. As he suggests, the set of people attracted to violence overlaps with the set of people attracted to anti-government sentiments. The set of people attracted to violence also overlaps with the set of people who work for the government itself. Oath Keepers is in the rare position of pushing both groups toward nonviolence—of telling the rebels that there’s an alternative to lashing out and of telling officials with guns that there’s an alternative to mindlessly following orders.
You can criticize the Oath Keepers for being too indulgent of fringy fears or for handling the Dyer situation poorly. But what Potok calls “these kinds of conspiracy theories” are already out there. If you’re attracted to them, the Oath Keepers will inform you that there’s a peaceful way to resist illegitimate authority. At the same time, the group concerns itself with a subject that doesn’t seem to interest Potok at all, even though it’s one of the chief reasons such theories spread in the first place: the aggressive violence of the people in power. In a time of indefinite detentions, indiscriminate SWAT raids, and increasingly militarized disaster response, the Oath Keepers’ anxieties make much more sense than the anxieties of the group’s loudest critics.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason.