The enemy took John Pitner, by subterfuge and surprise, on a hot midsummer Saturday when no one could really have been expected to stand and fight, and the result was that John lost his liberty before he had a chance to save America. The date was July 27, 1996, the time was five in the afternoon, and the place was a low, gray, prefabricated house–the prosecutor said "trailer" and the papers "mobile home," but the company that made it said "manufactured
home"–hidden in a small riverine clearing in the woods of Whatcom County, Washington, about eighteen miles inland from Bellingham Bay, and not much farther than that from the Canadian border. In Bellingham, at five, people were already shaking off the day–getting into their cars and heading down to the harbor to watch the kayaks come in and then, maybe stop, for a drink and dinner while the sun melted into a pink line over the San Juan Islands. But out in the county, in the tangled scrub and wayward ash woods that a few very old Whatcom loggers could still remember as breathing forest, the air was heavy, and people were sitting around watching reruns, too listless to enjoy the liberty they had. John himself wasn't watching anything. He was thinking about the real estate agent who had called twice to tell him she was on her way, and, of course, he was also thinking about the invasion of the New World Order, wondering whether, given the imminence of the invasion, it was worth his while to put a second coat of gray paint on the wooden deck of a house that was up for sale anyway. John was very concerned about his liberty. He believed that liberty was something God had guaranteed to men like him, men who were Patriots, and that now the New World Order was chipping it away, like the deck paint on his own porch.
When John was out pitching Armageddon, in his official capacity as founder, promoter, banker, quartermaster, and commander in chief of a Patriot army he called the Washington State Militia, he would sometimes raise his right hand and swear to die fighting to preserve his liberty and yours. "Yup, that's me, give me liberty or give me death," he'd say, after a thoughtful pause which seemed to suggest that, whatever you might have heard to the contrary, the phrase, along with the sentiment, was his. John was armed, he was ready for the big battle, and he never intended to get stopped in his hero's tracks–stopped, much less, in a pair of old pants and a T-shirt, in his own house, at the end of a summer day, by a small woman with a 9 mm Glock, a pair of handcuffs, and an ID from the Federal Bureau of Investigation–but that was what in fact happened. He heard the noise of a car bumping down the dirt road to his clearing and got up to look out the window, expecting to see the realtor and, with any luck, the client she had asked to bring. No one else knew he was home that afternoon, or was even in Whatcom County. His wife, Deborah Sue, had left him that spring and was living in town. His daughter, Rachel, who had driven out earlier for a swim, was certainly back in town, too–though for a moment he wondered if it was
Rachel, coming to retrieve something she'd forgotten, like her bathing suit or her best lipstick. But just then he spotted the woman, walking toward him with her jacket open in the heat and the Glock poking out of her shoulder holster and what looked to be two companions moving through the trees behind her, hanging back to cover her as she made the short trip across the clearing and up a couple of wooden steps to his front door. John claimed later, and probably still claims, that Special Agent Catherine Fahey of the Bellingham office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was so nervous coming through the door of the leader of the Washington State Militia that she followed him through the house, cornered him in the bathroom, and held her gun to his temple while one of the people he'd spotted in the trees a minute earlier pulled his arms behind him and snapped the cuffs on for her, whereas Fahey testified that it wasn't the bathroom, it was the bedroom, and that her gun was pointed at the floor. The result, in any event, was the same. John never made his last stand against the New World Order; he was arrested instead, and by all accounts he surrendered quietly, though not without warning Fahey that if he was out of phone contact with the Patriot world for more than twenty-four hours, militias all over the country would go on "tac-4 alert" and his own militiamen–seven thousand of them, he told her–would be deployed. He called it a declaration of war. That night he slept in a holding cell near Seattle, and on Monday, in the resentful company of three other Whatcom County militiamen, three Seattle Freemen, and one of the Freemen's wives, he was formally charged before a magistrate of the U.S. District Court for Western Washington. The charge against him was "conspiracy"–"conspiracy to make and possess destructive devices"–and the purpose of those devices was "an eventual confrontation" with the federal government or the United Nations. The case became known as United States v. John Irvin Pitner et al.
When I interviewed John Pitner for the first time, four months before his arrest and about three months after I had started talking to people on the Patriot fringe of the American right, there were thought to be as many as eight hundred militias in the country–even as many as nine hundred, given the strong likelihood that the most seriously armed militias were going to be the ones nobody outside the Patriot underground had ever heard of. Today, there are fewer than two hundred known militias, which is to say active, identifiable, self-designated, paramilitary, citizens' reserves teetering aboveground on the perch of their First Amendment right to speak freely and assemble peaceably and their Second Amendment license to buy arms and organize. Some people claim the militia movement is over. Some claim it was never much of a movement anyway, since, at least in theory, all you ever really needed to make a militia was one like-minded friend and the loan of a hunting rifle. But even today, with so many watch groups committed to tracking activity on the armed right, there is no consensus on the number of people actually in militias. The FBI last put it at forty thousand, but other estimates I've seen run from an improbably modest five or ten thousand to an improbably cautionary four hundred thousand, and–this being pretty much what they ran five years ago–it could also be true that, in the course of five years, the number of men in armed, unknown, underground, Patriot hate groups, if not the groups themselves, has simply increased accordingly. My colleague Cathy Logg, an ex-Marine and Bellingham grandmother who at the time covered crime for the Bellingham Herald,
told me that after John's trial ended, in 1997, she'd fought to keep the story of the Washington State Militia open, and lost. "My boss kind of thought, ’They've arrested these guys, and the rattlesnake is dead,' and I said, ’Noooo, they've just cut off the rattle,' " was the way she put it, and of course she was right. For one thing, it's harder to stay rattling aboveground than it once was. Militias that court attention–militias with leaders like John who go public with their names and numbers and what John used to call their "Good Samaritan" faces, and talk to reporters, and make speeches–are, almost by definition, the easiest ones to infiltrate (and so many undercover cops and agents were fed into the militia movement in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, that they were
infiltrated). For another, a good argument can be made that, with the right in the White House, a few militiamen, at least, have started sleeping better and, by extension, that any militiamen who aren't sleeping better were probably headed underground all along. Norman Olson, who once ran the Michigan Milita (and was so eager for attention himself that he called to confirm the connection between his own Michigan Militia and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City conspirator now in prison on a life sentence, before anyone even knew about a connection) disbanded his latest militia a few months after George W. Bush's inauguration, telling reporters, with some disgust, that "across the nation, there is a satisfaction among Patriots with the way things are going." The difference, of course, is that in the mid-nineties Bill Clinton was still in the first term of a two-term presidency, the Senate was still in Democratic hands, and the radical right was represented by Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House and, as it turned out, a man who could have been bought off with a short ride in Air Force One
. Today, the country has a war on terror that is not homegrown, a born-again president, an attorney general more highly regarded on the Patriot Web sites than in the New York Times,
and a House whip who sounds as if John Pitner drafts his stump speeches. The Good Samaritan faces are what you see in Congress, though right now their preoccupation has shifted from the Wall Street conspiracy to the conspiracy called Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Wall Street on September 11, 2001. The problem for militias today is less the tedium of satisfaction than it is a kind of ideological conflict of interest, since Osama bin Laden's followers seem to have precisely the same enemies they do–with the notable distinction that Al Qaeda's enemies list includes white American Christians, people like them, while theirs has always included foreigners, or, you could say, people who are not white, American, and Christian. Some of the supremacist groups have managed to get around this the way one American neo-Nazi did when he posted a note of congratulations to the terrorists of September 11th, praising them for "testicular" courage while reminding them not even to think about "marrying our daughters." But it was not the sort of thing a Good Samaritan would say.
It has to be said that, in 1996, my idea of the American mainstream was exceptionally limited. I had grown up in the McCarthy years and had long since accepted that what Richard Hofstadter so famously described as "the paranoid style in American politics" might also be our most enduring style. I had even produced a book about a cowboy, hoping to discover what happened to an American archetype when his own myths of liberty failed. But after twenty years of living between New York and Paris, and of reporting almost entirely from Europe, nothing, not even my own experience writing about the kinds of nationalism that were surfacing (and resurfacing) there in the eighties and nineties, really prepared me for the ideology of Oklahoma City, or for the peculiarly American rhetoric of the militiamen I started meeting, or–and maybe it was this, more than anything–for the evidence of danger to people like me in what was after all my
country. Certainly, nothing prepared me for how unfamiliar the West would seem, with its militias and Freemen and Patriot tribes all gathering for the big fight–which I imagine is why I ended up in Whatcom County, with my back to the Pacific, talking to John Pitner. John believed that the fight for America was going to start in Whatcom County, and, short of Alaska, Whatcom County was just about as far west as you could go in the continental United States. John didn't credit anyone who tried to dissuade him, not even his sheriff, Dale Brandland, who was the only lawman in Whatcom County whose authority John recognized, the only one with what he called the "constitutional right" even to be
in the county. The sheriff wanted everyone to believe that war in Whatcom County was impossible, if for no reason other than that the government was incapable of organizing anything as complicated as a war in Whatcom County. ("Not without screwing up," as he explained it to me.) But John told me what he had told his men in the Washington State Militia: that the enemy they called the New World Order–the president and the United States Army and the United Nations troops and the FBI SWAT teams and the Earth First! terrorists and all the other conspirators who took their orders from David Rockefeller and the rest of the Marxist elite on the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission and got their weapons from the eight Jewish bankers who owned the Federal Reserve–was going to cross the Canadian border just below Vancouver, and fan out off the Interstate 5 to start the battle for America on the very road where John and Debbie Pitner, had put their house. He never said, not precisely, that the masterminds of the New World Order had chosen Valley Highway 9 because a patriot by the name of John Pitner lived there. He liked to present himself as a modest man, just an honest citizen doing what he could to alert his neighbors to the great conspiracy against them. He wanted to enlighten, not frighten, the farmers and loggers and born-again dropouts who lived near him on Valley Highway, which wasn't a highway at all–not for moving tanks and armies–but a country road, winding beside the south fork of the Nooksack River, up from the little town of Deming and east through Van Zandt and Acme and Sedro Woolley and a couple of other villages so small they had simply kept the name of the first settler to stay long enough to need a tombstone. It wasn't John's fault if some of his neighbors looked at the documents, theirs for such a small price, thought things over, and came to the conclusion that John Pitner was the reason the enemy was going to launch its assault on freedom on a stretch of back-country road in the woods of the northwest corner of the state of Washington, instead of, say, marching right down the Interstate 5 to Seattle, or even to Los Angeles–or for that matter crossing from the east of Canada and knocking out Wall Street on the way to the town they always referred to, shaking their heads or rolling their eyes and sighing, as "that Washington." Not even the sheriff thought it was John's fault. "It's not like they're stupid," Brandland told me, when I was in Bellingham for the first time and asking everyone I saw to describe the kind of people who believed in John. "They select their information. If it doesn't fit their paradigm, it's out. I try to keep an open mind. I just don't write them off as being nuts. I think that's inappropriate."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lone Patriot by Jane Kramer. Copyright © 2002 by Jane Kramer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.