Stormproof USA tents instructions on how to tie

How America's armed militia went from noble tradition to danger

When protests break out in the US, armed groups often emerge, citing the long history of the citizen militias. Such once played a central role in the establishment of a state, but later also in the enforcement of slavery.

It went off lightly in Denver. After a police officer thanked the newcomers for their support, the police chief made it clear that outside help was not needed to maintain order. And so the members of a self-proclaimed militia went home again. The increasing occurrence of such groups - almost exclusively male, predominantly white and practically always admirers of President Trump - as alleged support for law enforcement officers in demonstrations has raised concern in the United States. The most tragic event so far in this context was the death of two demonstrators in Kenosha. Much is still unclear about the course of events, but the 17-year-old shooter is said to have described himself as a member of the militia.

Ready to fight immediately in the event of a crisis

The public image of these people as gun freaks and racists may be true in some, perhaps numerous cases. Often, however, members of militias see themselves as patriots who follow the example of their predecessors and stand ready for their country in the event of a crisis. In fact, the term militia has a long tradition in the USA, which is often also noble from a point of view that has come down to us today. What cannot be overlooked, however, is the tendency that militias have made headlines in the recent past as lawbreakers rather than law enforcers.

From the point of view of today's militia members, their raison d'etre is enshrined in the second amendment to the constitution, which is sacred to every American gun owner. The Second Amendment stipulates that citizens' right to bear arms must not be impaired - and this right is linked to the existence of well-regulated militia. In the year of ratification, 1791, not only was the army small; a standing army was seen as a threat to a democracy. And two arguments of the Constitutional Fathers are met with the undivided approval of the militia officers today: that the rights of the member states must be safeguarded against central authority and that precautions must be taken against government tyranny.

It can be argued that the United States would not exist in its familiar form without a militia system. The English settlers in the North American coastal region in the 17th and 18th centuries - like their French neighbors in the north and the Spanish in the south - set up vigilante groups with all weapons-grade men, from young people to senior citizens, in order to turn the expanding settlements against the indigenous people protect. From today's perspective, at least officially, this is no longer seen as a glory, as such militias played an essential role in the decimation and displacement of the indigenous peoples.

The militia system built up by the British between Boston and Savannah finally struck back against the government in London. It was members of the militia, hastily summoned, who, after years of smoldering differences between the motherland and the 13 colonies in North America, opposed the proverbial British troops on the morning of April 19, 1775 near Lexington and Concord not far from Boston Shots heard around the world fired. It was the beginning of the American War of Independence (until 1783). The Lexington memorial for one of them Minuteman, a citizen ready to fight within minutes, is probably an icon and inspiration for every member of the militia today.

Of all people, the victorious general in this war and first President of the USA, George Washington, was worried about armed citizens who took their rights into their own hands. In western Pennsylvania, violence erupted in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 when protesting a tax on the popular drink. The protesting farmers formed a militia of around 500 men who, among other things, took action against the fortress-like property of the local tax official. In view of a rudimentary army, President Washington had no choice but to mobilize the militias of several member states and send around 13,000 of these civil soldiers against the rebels. The uprising collapsed quickly.

In the southern United States, militias took on a very special task: hunting escaped slaves. There weren't just so-called slave patrols, who patrolled in larger cities and on country roads. The units could also be mobilized quickly if slaves had escaped from a plantation. It was not uncommon for these armed men to chase the escaped even into what appeared to be the "safe" territory of the northern, slavery-free states - the legal situation was on the part of the hunters. Of course, one could come across a different, hostile militia: the one formed by abolitionists, the opponents of slavery. After the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the abolition of slavery, the concept of vigilante groups in the South took on a new guise - one of the most daunting and shameful in American history. The hooded men of the Ku Klux Klan tried to save the ideas and the racist brutality of the fallen confederacy into a new era.

Breaches of the law up to and including terrorism

With the rise of the USA to a world power, there was less and less space in the structure of state power for a militia consisting of military amateurs, regardless of all goodwill and patriotism. Since the National Defense Act of 1916, the place provided by the legislature for voluntary citizens who are capable of weapons and who can be mobilized quickly has been the National Guard, which is organized at the level of the member states and is subordinate to the respective governor in normal times. Since then, the term militia has increasingly become something private, often ideologically influenced.

In the recent past, these militias have mostly attracted attention through legally controversial, sometimes unconstitutional activities - or through violations of the law, including terrorism. The worst incident was the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, which killed at least 168 people. The two perpetrators declared themselves to be sympathizers of the militia movement and stated that they saw in the administration under President Bill Clinton a threat to a particularly valued part of the constitution: the Second Amendment. They had cast aside their last scruples due to the federal authorities' action against another variant of the militia, the armed fanatics of the Branch Davidians sect in Waco two years earlier, which ended in a fiasco with 86 deaths.

Observers, who cannot help but believe that militias under Democratic presidents are particularly aggressive, should see confirmation in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in January 2016. The perpetrators, described partly as right-wing extremists and partly as militia officers, wanted to demonstrate for the conversion of federally owned land into farmland. The almost six-week siege by police units ended without bloodshed. President at that time was Barack Obama.

The highest office of the state is playing an important role in the thinking of many Americans these weeks, including those who are organized in militias. The left is drawing a possibly exaggerated and unrealistic horror vision that President Trump could try after a narrow election defeat to continue to rule with the support of armed private armies. The more than three hundred year history of the militia in America would then be expanded to include its most inglorious chapter.