The arrest of the Hutaree militia last weekend may turn out to be an episode in an evolutionary process for the modern militia movement that mirrors the evolution of modern Republican conservatism. There's a hint of this possibility in an interview the New York Times conducted with a Michigan militia man who refused a Hutaree request for assistance during the weekend raids, reporting the call he took to the state police instead. The militia man, a white man who has converted to Islam, knew of the Hutaree and deemed them to be beyond the pale. While this particular person is probably exceptional as far as his faith is concerned, the apocalyptic sectarianism espoused by the Hutaree may have proved a deal-breaker for militias otherwise tempted to ally with the "Colonial Christian Republic."
The man interviewed by the Times says that his militia, at least, has taken steps to rehabilitate its image since the last period of militia prominence in the mid-1990s. In particular, they claim to have purged themselves of racist and anti-semitic elements. This story, if accurate, reminds me of the stand taken by William F. Buckley to define orthodoxy for what I call entrepreneurial conservatives in the 1960s. Buckley was most concerned with distancing the movement that formed around Barry Goldwater, and later rallied around Ronald Reagan, from the John Birch Society, which in the Sixties was at least as notorious as the militias have been since the Nineties. The Birchers' wild conspiracy theories (they most notoriously insinuated that President Eisenhower was part of the international communist conspiracy) threatened to discredit the budding movement, but Buckley from the bully pulpit of National Review convincingly repudiated them and effectively relegated them to the obscurity in which they remain today. Buckley had broken an informal rule for ideologues, according to which leftists had no enemies to the left, and rightists had no enemies to the right. He arguably made entrepreneurial conservatism more palatable to Americans by making clear that it had a limit.
Militiamen today may be trying the same thing, ostracizing the Hutaree as an example of a group that went or planned to go too far. It's sure to be a difficult process, and the man interviewed by the Times says he's been denounced by other militiamen for betraying his "brothers." It's also a process more inherently limited than Buckley's work, since many if not most Americans will never accept the irregular militia's assumed prerogative to form private armies and resist tyrannies identified solely by their own skewed analysis of law and politics. Of course, the Hutaree may just as well have ended up victims of a turf battle in Michigan, with one irregular militia refusing to accept the proliferation of others in its territory. Nevertheless, the controversy within the militia movement makes it fair to ask to what extent the excesses of the Hutaree should be ascribed to any larger group, whether the militias or the American right wing as a whole.
The Hutaree seems close enough to a cult that it arguably transcends conventional political categories of left and right. Sixty years or more of apocalyptic anti-Communism and anti-liberalism in this country probably accounts in part for the Hutaree's peculiar beliefs and alleged strategies, but if we content ourselves with labeling them "right," especially if we do so in order to taint the entire "right" by association, we may be doing no more than playing the Bipolarchy game. Make no mistake: if the charges hold up, the Hutaree are very bad guys, and their fellow militias are little better in their beliefs. But if we deal with each of these phenomena on its own terms instead of labelling them for political purposes we may be able to deal with them more effectively, with fewer people tempted to come to their defense on the assumption that they're on the same side.