Soldiers with gas mask and automatic guns standing ready
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One June day two years ago, James Douglas Nichols was pushing 70 miles per hour down a country road not far from his Decker, Michigan farm when he was caught in the crosshairs of a sheriff deputy’s radar gun. The deputy pulled Nichols over and issued him tickets for speeding and for driving without a valid license.

Soon after, before a courthouse hearing in Sanilac County in eastern Michigan’s “thumb,” Nichols offered a bizarre defense of his actions. The government, Nichols insisted, does not have the constitutional power to regulate private citizens in their cars. “I have put everyone concerned here on notice of what is going on here,” declared Nichols with paranoid melodrama, “to violate my rights to free travel as cited in the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Michigan.”

Presiding District Court Judge James A. Marcus patiently explained to Nichols the long-accepted legal distinction between a private citizen’s constitutional right to travel freely and the government’s legitimate right to regulate the operation of a motor vehicle. But Nichols was not about to buy the judge’s fine distinction; he had done plenty of his own research. Nichols continued his losing protests, citing Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case. “He’d lift a sentence or phrase that he thought was applicable, but he’d do so out of context so that the meaning was completely incorrect or nonsensical,” recalls Judge Marcus.

The Sanilac County courthouse, a gracious brick edifice with a hideous concrete-block addition stuck on the back, is no stranger to twisted logic. Earlier that year, James’s brother Terry Nichols had tried his own hand at finding his salvation in do-it-yourself legal reasoning. He didn’t really owe that $31,000 in bank credit card debt, he announced to the court, because the banks had lent him “credit,” not “legal tender.” He offered to pay with what he called a “certified fractional reserve check,” a worthless piece of paper. “You can’t follow their arguments,” explains Judge Marcus, “because they’re listening to a different music no one else hears.”

But now, after the Oklahoma City bombing, plenty of people are straining to hear the melody. James and Terry Nichols were both picked up after the bombing, though only Terry, and their friend Timothy McVeigh, have been charged with being directly involved. The search for possible motives behind the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history has turned the nation’s attention to the so-called “patriot movement,” the subculture of shadowy para-military groups and screwball ideas to which all three men were drawn.

The media has portrayed the movement as full of gun-loving, right-wing extremists, and Timothy McVeigh, given his obsession with weapons and Waco, certainly fits that description. But that portrayal obscures a key fact: Most members of the patriot movement are less obsessed with guns than with laws. (James Nichols, for one, never joined a militia.) For every camouflage-wearing amateur soldier drilling on weekends there are several amateur lawyers sitting at home reading federal statutes.

The patriot movement is a loose, motley affair. It includes plenty of racists and anti-semites, but also a good number of people who are not. Much of their ideology can be safely classified as extreme versions of contemporary conservative, anti-government dogma. Yet their absolutist notions about personal liberties put them closer to the ACLU and the New Left than to William Bennett and the Heritage Foundation.

What all “patriots” do seem to share, beyond the well-publicized fear that the federal government is stealing their rights, is a passionate devotion to the precise language of the nation’s founding documents. Imagine Robert Bork and Nat Hentoff dropping acid in the woods and you begin to get the picture.

Better yet, imagine a fundamentalist revival meeting where the Bible is replaced by The Federalist Papers. As I chased the Nichols story around the prairie-flat eastern Michigan farm country on the wind-swept shores of Lake Huron, time and again friends and neighbors of James Nichols would bring up the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or The Federalist Papers, chide me for not having studied them, and quote from them as if from scripture. The religious parallels were unmistakable, even down to the millenarian belief, almost universally shared, that Washington’s attack on individual liberty is a prelude to the imposition of a “New World Order”: a totalitarian, one-world government controlled by the United Nations.

Suspicious, even dismissive, of the interpretations of scholarly priests (i.e. judges), patriots prefer an extreme version of Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” in which each individual can clearly grasp the framers’ intent by reading the sacred texts for themselves. But like Christian fundamentalists, these patriots are guided by an idiosyncratic political agenda. They tend to quote selectively and read literally, “isolating the part from the whole and pretending that there can be only one reading,” notes University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty. They are Constitutional fundamentalists.

One of the movement’s gentler, more thoughtful members is James Nichols’s neighbor and friend Phil Morawski, a bearded, pudgy, vaguely hippyish-looking farmer who sports a cowboy hat with a large silver crucifix and the words “To Live in Christ” scrawled on it. Morawski became a familiar figure on network television in the days after the raid on the Nichols home, speaking to reporters in a Foster Brooks-like hiccupy slur (“He doesn’t drink,” swears another neighbor, “he just talks that way.”) Morawski lives with his mother and brother only a mile south of the Nichols place, on a farm complete with braying goats and a red, American Gothic-style barn. On the barn, in large, faded-white letters, are the words “Happy Birthday America.” Though not a militia member, Moraski says he has attended some of their meetings where he “swore an oath to the Constitution.”

Like most “patriots,” Morawski’s frustration with the federal government arose from a personal trauma. Along with millions of other farmers, he took out large expansion loans at the urging of U.S. Department of Agriculture in the seventies, then found himself buried in debt in the eighties, when land and commodity prices plummeted. He spent years in and out of court fighting the farm credit system, and managed to hold onto his land only by learning the intracacies of agricultural law with the help of various grassroots farm groups, many of which eventually evolved into patriot organizations.

In the process he picked up some odd ideas. Nailed to the front of his farmhouse is a copy of the farm’s title, or “patent,” which the land’s first settlers received from the federal government in the nineteenth century. Morawski and many other patriot farmers firmly believe that the language of these patents exempt them from local zoning ordinances. (Only the courts disagree.)

James Nichols, too, was drawn into the orbit of the patriot movement after a bitter personal legal battle. During a nasty divorce settlement in the late eighties, his ex-wife Kelly accused him of child abuse. Nichols passed a lie detector test and the charges were dropped. But the episode, which included a police search of his house left him feeling both furious and humiliated.

After that, Nichols plunged into the literature of the newly emerging patriot movement. He read the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, along with “Spotlight,” a National Enquirer-like patriot paper, which runs pieces such as an exposé about concentration camps constructed to hold domestic political prisoners. During the winters, with little farm work to do, Nichols curled up with Black’s Law Dictionary and the Uniform Commercial Code, an encyclopedia-length volume of rules that regulate commercial transactions. He was looking, he told friends, for legal means to take himself “completely out of the system.” He attended meetings of We the People, a tax-protest group whose members believe the Federal Reserve system is unconstitutional. Soon, he, too, was marking all his money with a red stamp that said he was not responsible for its value. He even tried to get the county clerk to expunge his marriage license from the public record, and claimed to be “no longer one of your citizens of your de facto government.”

Nichols’ notions were not exactly original. Virtually all of them had roots in the Posse Comitatus, a radical anti-federal-government movement founded in Oregon in 1969 and popular in the rural Midwest during the eighties farm crisis. Posse members believed, among other things, that the Federal Reserve is in the pockets of a cabal of Jewish international bankers and that all constitutional amendments other than the first 10 were written by and for white Christians. The Posse died out in the mid-eighties after some of its leaders were jailed or killed in shoot-outs with federal authorities. But the movement’s legalist protests, such as refusing to carry driver’s licenses and paying debts with “fractional reserve checks,” made their way into the patriot movement and into the minds of the Nichols brothers.

Although he never joined the militia, James Nichols attended several of their meetings, usually to give informational speeches on how to “drop out of the system.” He won few converts. “He’s a little bit farther than we are,” admits Art Bean, commander of the Michigan Militia of Tuscola County (just west of Sanilac County). Not that the militia members are middle-of-the-roaders. Bean, among others, is “very disturbed” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s statutory language, which he says gives the president the power to declare martial law: “Read the law and make up your own mind.” He fully expects Clinton to use that power before the 1996 election, in part to stop the militias.

In his search for ways to drop out of the system, Nichols came upon the teachings of a radical constitutionalist named Karl Granse. A self-professed legal expert, Granse runs an outfit called Citizens for a Constitutional Republic, headquartered in Apple Valley, an upscale Minneapolis suburb. In the fall of 1994, Nichols and several friends traveled to Minneapolis for one of Granse’s seminars on how to shuffle off the legal coils of taxes and licenses. Nichols returned to Michigan $600 poorer, the price of the weekend lecture plus various books and video-tapes.

Eager to watch one of the videotapes, I went to visit a Nichols friend, Jim LeValley, who had borrowed one. A member of the Michigan Militia, LeValley raises flowers and herbs in a commercial greenhouse next to his home on the banks of the Cass River. He greeted me in a camouflage cap, his boots caked with dirt. We settled into the Ethan Allen furniture in his living room and flipped on the videotape.

On the tape, Granse points to the wall behind him, where an overhead projector displays fragments of statutory language defining those people subject to the federal income tax as “residents of the United States.” He then posits that no one in the room meets the criteria because they live in the individual states. “The ‘United States’ implies more than one,” he proclaims with great flourish, teasing an audience member from Illinois to illustrate his point: “You can either live in the United States or in Illinois. Which is it going to be?. . . You see, we have to stop and analyze the words,” Granse instructs. “Law is a precise language.”

As the tape played on, LeValley told me why he finds Granse’s ideas so appealing. “If you are not part of the corporate entity of the United States you don’t have to worry about the laws set forth by the United States to govern its people,” LeValley explained. “It makes life a whole lot easier.” I thought of W.C. Fields, who once insisted that he had studied the Bible scrupulously for 18 years, looking for loopholes.

When the tape was over, LeValley pulled a dollar bill from his pocket, flipped it over, and pointed to the Latin words beneath the Masonic eyed-pyramid: NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM. “You know what that means?” he asked me. “That means ‘New World Order.’ It means eventually they want us to be in a one-world government. That’s why they want to take away our guns.”

As I drove off, I wondered whether LeValley and his self-taught colleagues would someday see through the patriot movement’s paranoid misreadings of history and the world. It might help if they knew that the words on the dollar bill, a quotation from the Latin poet Virgil meaning “New Order of the Ages,” were chosen not by international conspirators, but by a committee of this country’s first patriots, the revolutionaries who wrote the Constitution.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.