The term “militia” is an odd one. Not because it’s difficult to conjure an image of a paramilitary group, right? Rather, the term means different things to different people.
For most of American history, militia was an oxymoron. It was only in the 1950s and ’60s that the term became acceptable and a bad word, with its poisonous connotations of police state repression. Today, it’s so rare that even officials who favor gun rights are hesitant to use it, as it implies dangerous and often literal motivations.
And while many uses of the term these days can be taken entirely at face value, the phrase also has a dark history.
1. Gag orders
When the Hoover administration passed the government’s first political gag order on Oct. 6, 1933, it meant things like the publishing of newspapers critical of President Franklin Roosevelt or the arrest of a journalist. In this account, the words “paramilitary” and “militia” are used interchangeably, but that is not the case.
A letter to The New York Times from an unnamed FBI agent to a publisher claiming that “some people in the New Deal parties are allied with ‘Militia’ forces . . . if their patriotism is questioned, things could go down badly” in the Times in 1936 is commonly cited as proof that “paramilitary” is all too often used to obfuscate the real nature of authoritarian groups. Though the paper refused to reveal its sources, it went on to reveal a second, more belligerent official who served as a consultant to the Times. The NYT, and more people who later knew of the methods of the group, came to see the letter as merely a publicity stunt, a way to divide its opponents and help Roosevelt and the Democrats.
The death threat in April 1939 by the New York Gang, led by Ralph Bower, to a prominent U.S. senator after he introduced a bill to fight Nazi imperialism is also cited as evidence of some of the rancor that the term came to symbolize. This message was sent three days after Bower had staged a similar political meeting in Washington — without calling out anyone by name — drawing 400 police officers and injuring several people.
The New York Gang was an American protest organization that arose during the 1920s and 1930s to protest, among other things, government labor policies. It split during the political climate of the ’30s, when a larger organization brought in by Bower staged a two-pronged assault on the Roosevelt administration: a march and occupation of the federal building in New York City and the holding of the meeting on the premises of the U.S. Consulate in Honolulu.
2. Marginalizing terror victims
On April 11, 1979, some 200 members of the Abductors from Hell, a group of Satanists, held 27 persons hostage for hours inside the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Eugene, Oregon. They released the theatergoers during an evening performance of a Neil Simon play, but continued to hold some of the theater employees and security guards hostage for the next two weeks. By May 10, the hostages began an almost 24-hour hunger strike outside the theatre’s front entrance to draw attention to their demands that the director be fired and the production be cancelled.
The Abductors from Hell eventually released the hostages on May 16. However, the series of events — having launched the Hunger Strike Against the Freedom to Pray Act — spurred outrage in the U.S. and internationally. The hostage situation also created fears that a terrorist attack on the U.S. was imminent and prompted many to rely on “militia” to describe terror groups.
3. Forming militia groups to guard farmers and ranchers
It’s widely accepted that at the beginning of the 20th century, groups formed as part of an effort to protect small farmers and ranchers against the Mexican-American War. Called “cowboys,” they formed certain guerrilla bands to fight or disrupt Mexican-American soldiers in Texas and Mexico.
The Revolutionary War itself was fought in Texas, and the organization “wing nuts” once thought to be terrorists, the Texas Mounted Rifles, became famous during the Civil War, terrorizing Union soldiers and members of the opposition. The number of attacks on the troops during those battles also rose exponentially, and although they were ultimately defeated, they eventually began to perform complex jailbreaks and use farms and ranches as a base of operations during Civil War.
4. Centralizing support for anti-government groups
During the Cold War, the term “militia” was popular among anti-communist, anti-vietnam, anti