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My teen years were spent in radical right-wing groups. The paranoia was intoxicating.

It’s hard to recognize myself when I look back at that time of my life.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

We called ourselves “the Constitution Defenders” and we wore anything that looked military: camouflage, civil war uniforms, tricorn hats. There were about a dozen of us, teenagers and even younger, and we met on Sundays after church and prepared ourselves for battle.

We lined up in the upper room of our church and saluted the Confederate flag, even though we were in a small town in Michigan. Then I stepped forward to make a speech, wearing hunting camo over a Confederate flag T-shirt. I was 13. When I was done, we pulled out our knives — K-Bars, Bushmans, Bowies — and practiced techniques from a manual.

We practiced like that every week until, when I was 14, a boy got stabbed with a sword. The blade sank an inch and a half into his thigh, but his parents didn’t take him to the hospital; they were too suspicious of medical institutions and the risk of social services. The wound eventually healed after a mild infection.

It’s been a long time since I thought about militias. It’s been years since I’ve shot a gun, and I’ll be honest, I don’t really miss it. Politically, I’m generally progressive.

But in the Trump era, militias are making headlines again, and memories are flooding back with them. My family homeschooled; all our friends homeschooled; we all prioritized self-sufficiency. We lived in fear of a few looming specters: the Clintons, social services, martial law, gun control. We were taught that the liberal government was out to get our liberties and our faith.

One time at the library, a man approached my mom and asked if we were homeschoolers. I started gathering my little sisters, thinking he was from social services and we needed to make a run for it. He turned out to be a curriculum salesman.

These were the kind of fears we lived in, and we weren’t alone. In the ’90s, the Michigan Militia claimed 12,000 members and inspired militias throughout the country. Men in self-designed fatigues testified before the Senate and said the government needed a spanking. Gun sales skyrocketed, and so did the sales of pocket Constitutions.

When I sat down to write this piece about my experiences, I started by pointing to all the obvious historical catalysts that set the movement in motion — the civilians killed by government agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, and when Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law, expanding gun control in the US. These are the common militia talking points, but I realized it’s easier for me to recite them than to process the actual state of mind that once made me want to take up arms against the government.

Small towns like the one I grew up in are built on an economy of face-to-face trust. You see the same people every day, whether you’re going to work, pumping gas, or buying groceries. When you don’t ride the subway, when you’ve never worked in a company too big to meet the owner, you don’t learn to trust people you don’t personally know.

There’s something lovely and human about this “look a person in the eye and shake their hand” ecosystem, but it also contributes to small communities’ suspicion of the government — that faceless, unknowable entity. And it has a darker side. It primes a large chunk of America to distrust their elected officials, and it enables them to believe the worst about people of different races and religions they rarely actually encounter, whose humanity and struggles they never get the opportunity to see in real life.

It seems unbelievable now. But when you think that your president killed Vincent Foster, when you think that God instilled in you a duty to own guns and that the government is slowly eroding that right so that it can impose martial law, you start to lead a pretty suspicious life.

Meeting the leader of Michigan’s viral militia movement

Our family had half a dozen guns, far from an unusual number for a rural family. Our designated home-defense weapon was a consistently loaded Mossberg 20-gauge, and I knew from an early age that it was my job to use it if something went down when Dad wasn’t home. We openly discussed home intruder scenarios with the whole family, but the details of government standoff strategies were just between me and Dad, like when to aim for the head because an agent might be wearing body armor.

I was 11 when Dad and I drove an hour north to the home and gunshop of Norman Olson, a retired Air Force officer, Baptist pastor, and controversial founder of the Michigan Militia. Instead of maintaining secrecy and seclusion, he welcomed the local news to training sessions. He wore his fatigues constantly. He went to an amusement park with Michael Moore on his show TV Nation. He organized the Michigan Militia in county-based brigades that he led from his headquarters, which was also a church that he ran, in Alanson, Michigan.

The militia movement was always decentralized. That’s how they wanted it, a movement driven by the people. But if there was one person who inspired and modeled for the militia activity in the ’90s, it was Norm.

Dad and I went to interview Norm, calling it homeschool “civics class.” Norm kept having to run out to the gunshop to help customers, so he set out stacks of books about Ruby Ridge and guerrilla warfare tactics for us to look at. We briefly met his wife, who referred to Norm as “the commander.”

Norm seemed intelligent as he talked about issues like 9/11 (it wasn’t necessarily an inside job, but Bush definitely knew it was going to happen and didn’t stop it), the Oklahoma City bombing (probably orchestrated by the government to discredit the militia), and the Bush-Gore election contest (Norm had hoped Gore would win, because he might have been totalitarian enough to spark an actual revolution).

His rhetoric was conspiratorial but contained insights into real problems with the American system; Norm argued that white liberals contributed to racial poverty, and cited the Black Panthers as an inspiration for his movement. He was frightened by the militarization of local police and the increasing government surveillance that new technology made possible.

When we left I was excited. I had a Michigan Militia Wolverines patch signed by Norm Olson. I felt important. I felt that I could be part of returning America to what it was supposed to be.

Over the next few years, as I entered my teens, I was prepared to do just that.

I thought about the Second Amendment and states’ rights and revolution constantly. I imagined fighting in a revolution against the government. I envisioned standoffs in our house, in our woods, in our barn. I prepared for those situations, planning and practicing marksmanship faithfully.

The Michigan Militia never engaged in the government standoff they were prepping for. Some local groups did gather though: In 1994, three young men in Fowlerville, Michigan, were stopped by a police officer who discovered their car was full of weapons, including an AK-47 and more than 700 rounds of ammo. They also had a notebook that indicated they’d been monitoring police officers’ movements. The three men skipped bail, but 40 armed militiamen showed up at court in their place, publicly threatening to kill any police officer who tried to take away their guns.

If I had been called to join a standoff at that time, I probably would have taken my guns and gone.

Running the boys militia

Three years after interviewing Norm, I joined my first militia, the group of homeschooled teens that eventually ended in an accidental stabbing. I was 13, and my family joined a church of homeschooling families. After each service, while our mothers made lunch, boys as young as 10 trooped upstairs for militia meetings.

I ran to be militia commander in their next election, making speeches standing on a pew all about how I would turn the group into a legitimate militia that could protect our families. I appointed lieutenants and held competitions for fitness, tactical knowledge, and marksmanship. We started bringing knives, guns, and tactical books to church.

Most of the adults in the church encouraged us. An older man sat me and my second-in-command down and warned us to prepare for the race war that was brewing in America, adding that black-on-white crime was criminally underreported by the liberal media. He also suggested that we might consider targeting abortion doctors, if we ever went beyond training exercises.

But after the stabbing incident spooked a bunch of our parents, they started pulling their kids out the group. After winning a few elections, I lost to a boy whose older brothers were in the real Army.

Norm Olson had also lost an election. His new theory that the Japanese were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing was too much for the rest of the militia, and he was replaced by a “moderate” from southern Michigan.

In Montana, a group called the Freemen defied the FBI and another standoff ensued. But the government seemed to have learned something. Nobody died. They just waited out the Freemen.

Norm showed up at the site of the standoff, as he had promised to show up anywhere people were resisting the government, but he found his services weren’t wanted and spent most of his time sitting in a nearby diner.

Not long after that, he moved to Alaska, which he said was the last independent-thinking state left. Norm’s time in the spotlight was over.

Growing up and growing out

It’s hard to connect the dots between where I was then and where I am now, working in marketing in southern Pennsylvania and raising two hopefully nonviolent sons. I didn’t wake up and have any sudden liberal epiphanies. Maturity comes slowly, but the ability to break your intoxicating addiction to paranoia comes with it.

By the time I was in my mid-teens, I was thinking more about changing the establishment from within. I decided I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice instead of a revolutionary. I was still obsessed with politics and what I saw as an ever-encroaching government.

I went to college, moved around the country, met different types of people, and read a lot of books. At some point, I forgot to be afraid all the time. Over the years my paradigm shifted from actual war to culture war, then to wondering why there has to be a war at all. My days as an angry, armed young man faded into the past.

Sometimes I miss the simple certainty I felt back then, but it’s hard not to cringe when I remember the way I thought about people who thought and believed and even looked different from me. It’s easy to think of that as a different lifetime, a different world. But deep down, I know that kid wearing his Confederate shirt and sharpening his Bowie knife isn’t a separate person from who I am now. I think I distance myself from that version of myself so I don’t have to cope with knowing that that person was me.

I could chalk it up to immaturity — I was just a kid. But there are adults who do that stuff, men much older than I am now. So I believe we have to think long and hard about what makes people so scared and angry.

You can draw a line from the scared right-wingers of the ’90s to the scared right-wingers of Trump’s America, but it’s not a straight line. One thing has stayed the same: the insider information. The militia information mill used to run on scanned pamphlets, homemade comb-tooth books, and conservative talk radio. Now it runs on YouTube, Facebook, and, still, conservative talk radio. The message is the same: You can’t trust the media. You can’t trust the government. Only we understand what’s really going on.

And people are dangerous when they believe — like I did — that everyone else is either deceived or evil.

Daniel Southwell has worked as a farmhand, roofer, roughneck, roustabout, surveyor, promotional video producer, and freelance writer. He currently lives in eastern Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons.


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