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Why FBI Says People Accused Of Plotting Attacks In Michigan Are Part Of A Militia


In Michigan, a plot to violently overthrow the government, to kidnap the governor and put her on trial for treason - to put it another way, a terrorist plot. But another word keeps coming up in this case - militia. So what does militia mean in this case? And is there a better way to talk about armed anti-government groups that hatch terrorist plots? Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago who studies paramilitary and white power groups. She joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So when news broke out of Michigan yesterday, the word militia was immediately thrown out there by law enforcement, government officials, members of the media - including us, obviously. You study this. What exactly is meant when these agencies use the term militia?

BELEW: Well, let me just begin by clarifying that the militias that I'm going to be talking about are also terrorist a lot of the time, and they are illegal all of the time. All 50 states have laws prohibiting paramilitary militias of the kind that we see in stories like this one. But I think that the distinction here is about what kind of white supremacist or right-wing anti-government terrorism is at play in a given context and what that context can tell us about what this movement is and what it is trying to accomplish.

CORNISH: Give us a little more detail about the elements that are at play, then.

BELEW: Sure. So there are kind of two kinds of militia that people are talking about in the public discourse today. One has to do with the idea of the well-regulated militia enumerated in the Second Amendment. It's really important for people to remember that that militia does not exist as a private effort anymore. Those militias were mandated and controlled by the state, and they were all incorporated into National Guard units in the early 20th century. So there's not a through line from the Second Amendment militia to the private militias we're talking about now, even though those groups sometimes claim that there is.

Now, the militias that we're talking about, like the ones in this story about the attempted kidnapping of Gov. Whitmer, are part of a social movement that has been active in our nation for several decades. And it's part of a longer history of a thing called the white power movement, which brought together Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads and others in the 1980s and then moved into some parts of the burgeoning militia movement in the early 1990s.

CORNISH: Why not call any of this domestic terror, call these folks domestic terror cells?

BELEW: I think they are domestic terror cells, but the thing is that there are several different flavors of domestic terror cells within this movement. So when experts use the word militia, what we're trying to do is distinguish between one part of the ideology versus another, right? So - but so when we think about a militia terrorist or a militia activist, we're thinking about a particular kind of public presentation and a set of related kinds of violent activism that they might choose to carry out. That's not the same as if we're talking about an underground paramilitary cell or if we're talking about an aboveground KKK group. And the specifics let the experts do the work of figuring out what this is and how it works.

CORNISH: It's interesting thinking back to what you said earlier about the Second Amendment because does using the term essentially lend that kind of patriotic lens to extremist groups when we throw around the word militia?

BELEW: You know, I don't know quite where that pushback is coming from. And, strikingly, I've been studying this phenomenon since 2005, and only in the last two weeks have I ever heard this kind of a pushback against the use of the term. And it seems to be coming, on the one hand, from people in National Guard units who don't want to be lumped into this, understandably. But also it seems to be coming from the left by way of saying that the word militia imbues some kind of neutral and order-keeping and legitimate face onto these groups. So when I use that word, militia, it's not to imbue any kind of positive connotation; it's simply to describe the type of activism that we need to confront.

CORNISH: Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago studying paramilitary and white power groups.

Thank you for speaking with us.

BELEW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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