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A tale of two militias: finding the right label for the Oregon protests

When an armed group occupied a federal building in Oregon to protest against the US government’s land management, the media quickly seized on the word “militia” to describe them. The Guardian reported the incident with the headline “Oregon militia threatens showdown with US agents at wildlife refuge“; The Washington Post listed the “Key things to know about the militia standoff in Oregon“; and The New York Times described the group as “armed activists and militiamen“. Commenters on social media quickly picked up on this use of language, with one question repeatedly voiced: why were the Oregon group members not being described as terrorists?

Echoing the debate about the use of the word mastermind in the wake of the Paris attacks, the argument about the correct term for the Oregon protestors highlights the politically loaded nature of labels. Words carry potent associations and images, and have the power not only to express the speaker’s views on the subject, but also to influence and form the listener’s opinion. So what are the histories and associations of the two key words in this particular debate: terrorist and militia?

Army or armed rebels?

Militia is by far the older term. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) currently gives a first citation from 1590, at which point it described the body of soldiers in the service of a sovereign or a state. This use—which is basically synonymous with “army”—is now obsolete, having been overtaken by the sense of “a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.” It is used to distinguish such civilian groups from professional soldiers, and up until the twentieth century it described official forces raised by order of a monarch or government.

In the 1920s, however, an additional (and in many ways opposite) sense surfaced: militias had emerged that did not work alongside the professional, official army of a country, but rather against it. A militia could now be described as “a military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities in opposition to a regular army.” The OED’s current first citation for this new sense comes from the Daily Telegraph, where it refers to Italy’s Fascist Militia, also known as the Blackshirts. In the 1930s the term was used to describe both the Republican and Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. By the 1990s, the term had gained a specifically US association, and was applied to a number of right-wing groups opposed to gun control and distrustful of the federal government.

Revolutionaries and the reign of terror

The term terrorist is nearly 200 years younger than militia, though its associations with political rebellion were present from its inception. The OED’s current first citation dates from 1794 and the era of the French Revolution, where it was used to describe “an adherent or supporter of the Jacobins, who advocated and practised methods of partisan repression and bloodshed in the propagation of the principles of democracy and equality.”

The word quickly gained a more general use, and by the first years of the nineteenth century was being used, in the words of the OED’s definition, to refer to “a person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims; especially a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.” The OED’s current first citation for this sense is from 1806, and refers to Republicans in Ireland, but through the intervening 200 years it has been used of countless groups from both ends of the political spectrum. As the OED notes, the word is generally considered to be derogatory and deeply critical. It is rarely seen as a self-applied label, instead reserved as a term to be assigned to opponents and enemies.

Constitutional rights and wrongs

Unsurprisingly, the Oregon protestors do not identify themselves as terrorists, though many on social media have used the label to describe them. Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Oregon protest, responded to this in a phone interview with CNN, stating: “We are not terrorists. We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children.” He distances the protest from both the violence and lawlessness associated with terrorism by emphasizing his role as a “concerned citizen” and family man. Bundy states that the group’s aim is to “restore the people’s constitutional rights,” presenting himself as a “defender” of those rights. By doing so, he attempts to give his cause a legitimacy and justification that would never be associated with terrorists.

This notion of constitutional rights is at the very heart of the protestors’ self-identity, and is intimately connected to their avowed role as a militia. On 29 December, Bundy appeared in a video titled “Breaking alert all call to militias! And Patriots! Bundy Ranch!” where he asked his supporters to gather in Oregon to “make a stand” against the government. In this video, Bundy appears with a copy of the US constitution in his shirt pocket. The second amendment to that constitution famously states: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This statement is, of course, the subject of extensive and ongoing debate, but one thing is clear: “militia” here is being used in the sense: “a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.” When the Bundy Ranch blog described the occupation, it stated that: “approximately 100/150 (and growing) armed militia (former US service members) have taken control of Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in the wildlife reserve.” In their self-identification as a militia, the Oregon protestors are using the term in a solely positive sense, presenting themselves as righteous defenders of their country and constitution.

As we saw earlier, though, there is an ambiguity at the heart of the term militia. When the media use that label of Bundy and his supporters, they are, most likely, thinking of the later sense—that of “a military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities in opposition to a regular army.” Used in this way, the term loses its sheen of legitimacy, and takes on associations of lawlessness, violence, and fear—the same concepts associated with terrorism. This is a case where two people saying the same word can mean two very different things. It is often said that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Here, it seems that one person’s militia is simply another person’s militia; though it is clear that very different forces may stand under that same label.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Cliven and Ammon Bundy” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ronnie

    IIRC, George Washington put down a similar group of idiots…I mean “rebels”…during the Whiskey Rebellion

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