The men who plotted to invade the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, and murder state officials this year were members of a militia group. Those “III Percenters” who have been showing up to urban street demonstrations in camo body armor and toting AR-15s organize themselves into militias. One of the major far-right “Patriot” groups pushing hard for a Trump military coup and an American civil war, the Oath Keepers, urges all of its members to organize local militias.
In each instance, there is a very clear need to use the term militias to describe both the nature of the group and the dynamic around which they organize it. Telling people not to use it—as a number of people have recently been advising me to do—is not only counterproductive, it’s a meaningless (not to mention wrongheaded) semantic diversion amid the dead-serious problem of how to deal with the rise of an armed paramilitary political movement, and a global one at that.
Certainly, I know the arguments against using the term. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer—the target of the Michigan “Wolverine Watchmen”—put it succinctly after the plot was disclosed: "They’re not 'militias,' " Whitmer said in a tweet. "They’re domestic terrorists endangering and intimidating their fellow Americans. Words matter."
Yes, words do matter—and referring to extremists who organize around the concept of a paramilitary group that engages in armed training as “domestic terrorists” is a misuse of those words. There’s nothing particularly illegal about engaging in those activities. Moreover, when we designate domestic terrorists, by definition they must have committed or plotted a violent criminal act.
Most of these groups and their members have not, in fact, committed any crimes—so designating them terrorists not only would be inappropriate, it would dilute and muddy the public’s understanding of that term as well. But when they do break the law, as the Wolverines did, then it’s not just acceptable but important to describe them as domestic terrorists.
However, there are many different kinds of such terrorists, ranging from white supremacists to “Boogaloo” activists to “Patriot” militiamen to anti-abortion and gun extremists to radical Islamists. A good journalist or analyst will thus naturally not simply describe them as terrorists but tell their audience what kind of terrorist—that is, what bandwidth of ideology motivated their act—they’re describing. “Militia group” in fact describes the openly paramilitary bloc of the antigovernment/antidemocratic “Patriot” movement, and it does so succinctly and accurately.
Mary McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, has an similar argument similar to Whitmer’s: “The use of the word ‘militia,’ when you are talking about anything other than a state militia like the National Guard, is just wrong. Using that term without putting the world ‘unlawful’ in front of it suggests there is some constitutional authority or legitimacy for their existence, which there isn’t.”
Similarly, political scientist Idean Salehyan argues: “Use of the term “militia” by these groups is deliberate—an attempt to legitimize their actions by making reference to the Constitution.”
There are several noteworthy points in this argument. The context McCord is describing is the reality that private armies—which applies perfectly well to the militia groups that have been organizing in the United States since the early 1990s—are in fact illegal in all 50 states. Such armed bodies were outlawed by state statutes in the early 1900s to combat their use by robber barons (mine owners and wealthy cattle ranchers particularly) who had been deploying them to ruthlessly murder ordinary citizens who opposed their rapacious practices.
The “Patriot” movement—which in fact is a far-right seditious movement organizing toward the overthrow of the federal government, but which disguises its intent by wrapping itself in faux patriotic bunting, using gobbledygook language about the Constitution to create an All-American public image—first adopted its strategy of forming militia groups in the 1990s as a way to claim some kind of constitutional lineage, borrowing language from the Second Amendment to confer upon themselves a kind of unearned legitimacy.
Yet states’ attorneys general—upon whom the onus falls when it comes to enforcing their own private-army prohibitions—have never attempted to tackle these groups on the basis of those laws, in no small part because of the coordinated ascendance of extreme laxity in gun laws over the past three decades, particularly when it comes to “open carry” laws. The reality is that these are self-appointed vigilante groups with zero accountability to anyone, and accordingly should be treated not just with zero legitimacy, but as active threats to public safety.
The problem doesn’t arise from the term we use to describe these groups. The Second Amendment no more confers any real legitimacy upon militia groups than referring to them as “Patriot” groups does: These may be the words they use to describe themselves, but their legitimacy entirely hinges on how these words are understood by the public. If journalists provide the proper context when reporting on their activities, their lack of legitimacy should be self-evident.
Moreover, journalists are constrained by facts on the ground. They cannot describe militia groups as “unlawful” unless legal authorities pronounce them to be so. Should attorneys general begin doing their duties by clamping down on these groups for organizing as private armies, then journalists would naturally follow suit.
The larger problem with McCord’s argument, however, is that it is absurdly America-centric, since the perception of legitimacy hinges entirely on militias’ connection to language in the Second Amendment. Militias, however, are a global problem, and that is a product of their generic nature apart from the peculiarities of American history.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which has been gathering data on American right-wing militia activity around the 2020 election, describes clearly how in fact militias are a global phenomenon with similarly toxic political consequences for the nations where they organize:
Globally, militias are responsible for more political violence than any other group, including governments, rebels, and insurgents. In many countries, militias operate at the behest of political figures to influence competition and competitors through attacks on candidates, supporters, ‘rival’ communities, and infrastructure. However, their actions transcend elections and episodes of political competition, and these groups frequently operate as a parallel violent fixture for political elites, parties, and interests. In some cases, these groups are kept ‘on retainer’ for political figures in and out of government for whom they commit acts of violence. In exchange for violence, these groups receive the patronage of political elites and impunity. Increasingly, militias who operate as the violent arm of a political movement engage in lucrative, criminal activity to supplement their incomes and ‘use their skills.’ They often have no clear political agenda and organize to promote a particular politicized identity or an ideology centered on an identity, and their short-term objective is to create violence and disorder across ‘rival’ communities.
These lessons on militias across the world are instructive in the US context. Although many US militias can be described as ‘latent’ in that they threaten more violence than they commit, several recently organized militias are associated with a right-wing ideology of extreme violence towards communities opposed to their rhetoric and demands for dominance and control. The lack of open sanctions of these groups from public figures and select local law enforcement has allowed them space to operate, while concurrently allowing political figures to claim little direct responsibility for violent actions from which they hope to benefit.
Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, observes, “I worry that the push to qualify definitions might create the idea of good, or neutral militias that ARE legitimate. These are not. They are not neutral observers. They are not keepers of law and order. They are paramilitary groups.”
As the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar reported, there are many reasons that experts who have been monitoring and reporting on these groups for the past several decades use the term “militia” quite specifically and purposely. “Experts who continue to use the word “militia” said it helped to define a distinct category among adherents of various fringe ideologies or criminal organizations including white supremacists, prison gangs, the tax protest movement, anti-vaxxers, skinheads, survivalists and others. … Some experts said they felt like they were under siege by ‘language police’ over a word they have used for decades,” he noted.
Emily Gorcenski adroitly observes that attempting to change the terminology is especially misguided in the context of the current political landscape, given the kind of legitimacy that law-enforcement authorities have ceded to these groups in the past few years:
Police have given these groups incredible elbowroom because police and militias fundamentally uphold the same white supremacist notion of law and order. Moreover, we must disabuse ourselves of the conviction that there is a legitimate version of empowered, private paramilitary action in a democratic society. Militias do not represent an alternative to policing, they represent an alternative to public accountability. In other words, the problem is not that militias are not correctly classified to be noticed by police, the problem is that the militias have been acting as an extension of the police. Demanding harsher action from law enforcement will likely not have the intended effect of tempering white supremacist activities, but rather the opposite: it has and will continue to be used to silence and eradicate those who organize against white supremacist activities.
Much of the problem does involve a compliant media hesitant to call out far-right organizing for the innately violent and illegitimate forms that it has been taking in recent years. The problem isn’t that journalists describe them as militias; the problem is that too many have legitimized them by failing to explain them to the public in the fuller context of the extremist vigilantism they embody.
Monitoring our semantics accomplishes nothing when it comes to paramilitary thugs in our streets. Standing up and defeating them requires an understanding well beyond abstract terms.