There are good explanation why we name them “militias” and why semantic arguments are a waste
Of course I know the arguments against using the term. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer – the target of the Wolverine Watchmen in Michigan – recited it succinctly after the conspiracy became known: “They are not ‘militias,'” Whitmer said in a tweet. “They are domestic terrorists who endanger and intimidate their fellow Americans. Words matter.”
Yes, words matter – and referring to extremists organized along the lines of a paramilitary group that trains themselves to be armed as “domestic terrorists” is an abuse of those words. It is not particularly illegal to participate in these activities. If we do name domestic terrorists, by definition they must have committed or planned a violent crime.
In fact, most of these groups and their members have committed no crimes. A designation as terrorist would therefore not only be inappropriate, but would also dilute and cloud the public’s understanding of the term. But when, like the Wolverines, they break the law, labeling them as domestic terrorists is not only acceptable, but important.
However, there are many different types of such terrorists, from white supremacists to “boogaloo” activists to “patriot” militiamen to anti-abortion and weapon extremists to radical Islamists. So, of course, a good journalist or analyst will not simply refer to them as terrorists, but rather tell their audience what kind of terrorists – that is, what range of ideology motivated their actions – they describe. “Militia Group” does indeed describe the openly paramilitary bloc of the anti-government / anti-democratic “Patriot” movement, succinctly and precisely.
Mary McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, has a similar argument as Whitmer: “The use of the word ‘militia’ when you are talking about something other than a state militia like the National Guard is just wrong. Using this term without making the world “illegal” suggests that there is some constitutional authority or legitimacy for its existence that does not exist. “
Similarly, political scientist Idean Salehyan argues: “The use of the term” militia “by these groups is deliberate – an attempt to legitimize their actions by reference to the Constitution.”
This argument has several notable points. The context McCord describes is the reality that private armies – which goes very well with the militia groups that have organized in the United States since the early 1990s – are in fact illegal in all 50 states. Such armed bodies were forbidden by state law in the early 20th century to combat their use by robber barons (particularly mine owners and wealthy ranchers) who had used them to ruthlessly murder common citizens who opposed their predatory practices.
The “Patriot” Movement – a right-wing inflammatory movement indeed, organized towards the overthrow of the federal government, but obscuring its intent by wrapping itself in a fake patriotic bunting and using the Gobbledygook language of the Constitution to order creating an All-American public image – first adopted in the 1990s the strategy of forming militia groups to claim some kind of constitutional ancestry and adopting the language from the second amendment to give themselves some kind of undeserved legitimacy.
However, the attorneys general, who are responsible for enforcing their own bans on the private army, have never attempted to combat these groups on the basis of these laws, not least because of the coordinated rise of extreme negligence gun laws over the past three decades, particularly when it comes to open- Carry laws is all about. The reality is that these are self-proclaimed vigilante groups who are not accountable to anyone and, accordingly, should be treated not only without legitimacy but as an active threat to public safety.
The problem does not arise from the term we use to describe these groups. The second amendment no longer gives militia groups any real legitimacy other than the term “patriot” groups: these may be the words they use to describe themselves, but their legitimacy depends entirely on how those words are understood by the public. If journalists give the right context in reporting their activities, their lack of legitimacy should be evident.
In addition, journalists are restricted by local facts. You cannot call militia groups “illegal” unless the judicial authorities explain it. Of course, should attorneys general begin to perform their duties by pressuring these groups to organize as private armies, journalists would follow suit.
The bigger problem with McCord’s argument, however, is that it is absurdly aimed at America, as the perception of legitimacy depends entirely on the militia connection to language in the second amendment. Militias are a global problem, however, and that is a product of their generic nature, aside from the specifics of American history.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which has collected data on the activities of the American right-wing militia surrounding the 2020 election, clearly describes how, in fact, militias are a global phenomenon with similarly toxic political ramifications for the nations in which they are located organize:
Globally, militias are responsible for more political violence than any other group, including governments, rebels and insurgents. In many countries, militias operate at the behest of political figures to influence competition and competitors by attacking candidates, supporters, “rival” communities and infrastructure. However, their actions go beyond elections and episodes of political competition, and these groups often function as parallel violent institutions for political elites, parties and interests. In some cases, these groups are “kept” for political figures inside and outside the government for whom they commit acts of violence. In exchange for violence, these groups receive the patronage of the political elites and impunity. Increasingly, militias, acting as the violent arm of a political movement, are engaged in lucrative criminal activities in order to supplement their income and “use their skills”. They often lack a clear political agenda and organize to promote a particular politicized identity or ideology that focuses on one identity, and their short-term goal is to create violence and disorder in “rival” communities.
These lessons about militias around the world are instructive in the US context. Although many US militias can be described as “latent” because they threaten more violence than they commit, some recently organized militias are linked to a right-wing ideology of extreme violence against communities that contradicts their rhetoric and demands for dominance and control. The lack of overt sanctions by these groups against public figures and select local law enforcement agencies has given them room to act, while at the same time political figures have little direct responsibility for acts of violence from which they will hopefully benefit.
Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, notes, “I worry that the urge to qualify definitions might spawn the idea of good or neutral militias that are legitimate. These are not. You are not a neutral observer. They are not the guardians of law and order. They are paramilitary groups. “
As Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times reported, there are many reasons why experts who have monitored and reported on these groups over the past few decades use the term “militia” specifically and deliberately. Experts who continue to use the word ‘militia’ said it helped define a specific category among adherents of various marginal ideologies or criminal organizations, including white supremacists, prison gangs, the tax protest movement, anti-Vaxxers, skinheads, survivors and others . … Some experts said they felt under siege by the “language police” because of a word they have used for decades, “he noted.
Emily Gorcenski adroitly notes that trying to change the terminology is particularly wrong in the context of the current political landscape, given the kind of legitimacy that law enforcement has given these groups in recent years:
The police have given these groups an incredible amount of leeway because the police and militias basically share the same white supremacist conception of law and order. In addition, we must evade the conviction that there is a legitimate version of empowered, private paramilitary action in a democratic society. Militias are not an alternative to policing, they are an alternative to public accountability. In other words, the problem is not that militias are not properly classified to be noticed by the police, but that the militia acts as an extension of the police force to have. Calling for tougher law enforcement action is unlikely to have the intended effect of mitigating the activities of white supremacists, but rather the opposite: they are and will continue to be used to silence and exterminate those who oppose white supremacist activities to organize.
Much of the problem is that conforming media is reluctant to call for a far right organization for the innate violent and illegitimate forms it has taken in recent years. The problem is not that journalists describe them as militias; The problem is, too many have legitimized them by failing to explain them to the public in the broader context of the extremist vigilantism they epitomize.
Monitoring our semantics is useless when it comes to paramilitary thugs on our streets. To stand up and defeat them requires an understanding that goes well beyond abstract concepts.