Today marks the 26th anniversary of the day—April 19, 1995—that a far-right “Patriot” extremist with military experience named Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and maiming hundreds more. It should have been a moment that permanently discredited his belief system as well as confirmed it as a major source of domestic terrorism and a top concern for law enforcement.
Yet on Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes showed us how the twisted beliefs of the “Patriots” who form the Oath Keepers—an organization devoted explicitly to recruiting military and law enforcement veterans, all potential McVeighs in the making—continue to assert their presence in the American political landscape by portraying their seditionist “constitutional” worldview as normal, and describing how actively serving law enforcement officers help train them in weapons and tactics. That despite their leadership having played leading roles in the attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power by armed insurrection on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol.
Jim Arroyo, an Oath Keepers leader from Arizona, boasted to the CBS reporters that they receive top-flight paramilitary training because of their affiliations.
“Our guys are very experienced,” he said. “We have active-duty law enforcement in our organization that are helping to train us. We can blend in with our law enforcement and in fact, in a lot of cases, our training is much more advanced because of our military backgrounds.”
While Arroyo seems to think that this will help make the public feel more comfortable with giving a law enforcement role to unaccountable vigilantes like his group, what it actually does is raise yet more bright red flags about the extent to which our law enforcement organizations have been infiltrated by and blithely staffed with right-wing extremists.
That problem became self-evident when it emerged that some 31 law-enforcement officers in 12 states have been linked to the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. It’s become a paramount issue as the connections between law enforcement and the far-right Proud Boys street brawlers—with whom the Oath Keepers at various times have linked arms—became better known after the insurrection as well. These issues are why the FBI sent out a bulletin to law enforcement advising them to be on the lookout for infiltration by such far-right groups.
This, as I explained well over a decade ago, is exactly what makes organizations like the Oath Keepers so potentially dangerous to our democracy:
Inevitably, there are going to be competent killers either joining the far right from our military ranks—especially if they've been recruited into those beliefs either before or during their service—or enacting far-right "lone wolf scenarios," and they are going to have the ability to wreak a great deal of havoc.
One of the experts CBS consulted for the piece, ex-NSC Senior Cirector Javed Ali, noted: “I think what makes the Oath Keepers unique and challenging, beyond the fact that they are a formal group with chapters all over the country, is that a large percentage have tactical training and operational experience in either the military or law enforcement. That at least gives them a capability that a lot of other people in this far right space don't have.”
One of the ways the Oath Keepers, like all would-be vigilantes, have always avoided accountability—as they have from their origins, when a prominent Oath Keeper speaker was arrested for sexually abusing his young daughter—is to claim that anyone causing trouble or breaking the law wasn’t really a member of the organization. This lets them fob off the violent, black helicopter paranoia and outright incompetence that swirls around their activities (including the moment, at the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff, that Oath Keepers and militiamen were drawing down on each other) as the mere side effect of the occasional irresponsible nonmember using their name.
In the interview, Arroyo maintains that tradition by dissociating his Arizona group from the national organization—even though some 12 Oath Keepers have been charged with conspiracy to obstruct Congress based on their actions that day, and prosecutors are circling around founder/president Stewart Rhodes, who has himself been defending the people arrested so far, calling it a “political prosecution.”
“I wanna congratulate Stewart Rhodes and his ten militia buddies for winning first place in the ultimate dumbass contest, 'cause that's what it was,” Arroyo said. “That goes against everything we've ever taught, everything we believe in. It was pre-planned. It was pre-staged. Ten guys go and do something stupid and suddenly, we're the devil.”
Yet strangely, few of the members of his group actually seemed to believe that the Oath Keepers arrested so far are, in fact, actually Oath Keepers. “Some of those people with Oath Keepers could have been BLM,” member Cathy York said.
“It could have been a false flag as far as I'm concerned,” piped in another member, Gary Harworth. Both insisted “we don’t know” when pressed on the matter.
“They're stupid people,” York added. “It's stupid. We don't do that. That's not Oath Keepers.”
That assertion does not stand up to historical scrutiny, let alone any consideration of the organization’s increasingly hysterical rhetoric over the past year—which includes Rhodes calling for an armed “civil war” with “antifa” and such “leftists” as Black Lives Matter, as well as his calls leading up to, and after, the election, calling on Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, declare martial law, and begin rounding up “traitors.”
As the 60 Minutes report emphasized, it’s remarkable that, given all the warning signs that things were afoot on Jan. 6, law enforcement and security forces were so ill prepared for the crowd from Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally to invade the Capitol. However, the role of the intermingling of law enforcement with such an extremist organization (buried in the subtext, unfortunately) is a central aspect of understanding how this happened.
“If they had been paying attention to the whole network of far-right groups online that were extremely vocal and very public about what they wanted to happen, I don't believe we would have seen so many people break into the Capitol,” MilitiaWatch overseer Micah Loewinger told 60 Minutes.
If it feels as though we have resolutely refused to learn anything over the past 26 years, you’re not alone.