Growth Of Militia Groups 'Astounding'

Members of an obscure militia called the Hutaree were charged Monday with plotting to kill a police officer and wage war against the U.S. Mark Potok, who heads a program for the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks the rapid rise of right-wing militias, says the group was typical of other anti-government organizations.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're learning more about the obscure militia group called the Hutaree. Members of the group were charged yesterday with plotting to murder a police officer and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, all to incite an anti-government uprising.

Many people had never heard of the Hutaree before, but Mark Potok knew about them. He heads a program that tracks right wing militia groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director, Southern Poverty Law Center): Well, thank you so much for having me.

NORRIS: When did your organization first take notice of the Hutaree and what brought them to your attention?

Mr. POTOK: Well, we spotted them early last year in 2009, really as a part of our normal activities in finding these groups, counting them and listing them. You know, it appeared to be one of the very large number of groups that appeared last year and didnt particularly merit any special attention.

NORRIS: Tell us a little bit more about this group and whats the significance of that name, Hutaree?

Mr. POTOK: Well, the name apparently means nothing. They had a whole lot of strange names that they apparently made up out of whole cloth. The thinking is that they thought that these words sounded biblical in some way, and meant Hutaree to mean something along the lines of Christian warrior.

The group has, we know of, formal chapters both in southern Michigan and in Utah. I presume the Utah chapter is very small. The other members, as far as we know, weren't organized into formal units outside of Michigan. In other words, in Indiana and Illinois and Ohio, these weren't formally units but apparently these were people associated with the group.

You know, what we really know about the group is that in many ways it's a very typical militia group, in that it has great fears about essentially the coming new world order. The Hutaree very much see, for instance, the United Nations as possibly the primary enemy. They see the United Nations or really any kind of global body as part of the threat, that we're all going to be pushed into this kind of socialistic, terrible one world regime.

NORRIS: It sounds like they had a specific playbook that they were hoping to use against this law enforcement officer. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Mr. POTOK: Their idea was that they would murder a law enforcement official, local police officer of some kind or other and that this kind of event would bring hundreds and hundreds of police officials from around the country to attend the funeral. They then allegedly intended to use improvised explosive devices and possibly missiles to attack either the funeral procession or the funeral itself.

It's just an amazing thing to contemplate, because it might well have been that they actually physically attacked a funeral that was attended by hundreds and hundreds of armed men and women. It could've been a real battle of Armageddon.

NORRIS: You had noted that this is but one of a large and fast growing number of similar groups around the country. How many groups are out there and how fast are those numbers growing?

Mr. POTOK: Well, we just completed and published a major look at the numbers and they are astounding. We have seen a 244 percent increase in the number of militias and other so-called anti-government patriot groups. That's 363 new groups that appeared in a single year. In addition to that, we've seen other kinds of radical right-wing groups growing rapidly over the last year. Notably, the anti-immigration movement where we've seen the numbers of minutemen-type groups proliferate by about 80 percent. So, all told, we're looking at a really explosive growth in the radical right in general.

NORRIS: Beyond immigration, what's driving this? What accounts for that?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think there are a number of things. The changing demographics of the country are extremely important, the idea that whites will lose their majority in the year 2050. Additionally, I think the economy has been very important as it gets worse and worse, at least for those people who are unemployed. There is simply more anger and frustration out there in the country and people are looking for explanations and a certain portion of them settle on these kinds of explanations.

The last thing I would say is that there has been really a, I think, kind of a vital role played by ostensibly mainstream politicians and certain commentators - in particular, commentators on cable news television shows. These people have in many instances helped to push into the mainstream absolutely groundless conspiracy theories and other ideas from the radical right.

You know, these are ideas that I think are wholly outside of the mainstream, or certainly ought to be, simply because they have no basis in reality. But the net effect of all of this is that people are very frightened out there. There are a number of people that the broad population views as leaders who are telling them things that are not true but are very scary.

NORRIS: Mark Potok is a director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. Mr. Potok, thank you so much.

Mr. POTOK: And thank you so much for having me.

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