'We need blood to cleanse us'

John Carlin, in Missoula, Montana, discovers the mix of farce and menace haunting rural America since Oklahoma

A month before the Oklahoma tragedy, Cal Greenup, a member of a paramilitary group called the North American Volunteer Militia, issued a prophetic warning: "The only way you can clean up the mess we're in right now, there's got to be a shedding of blood."

The "mess", Mr Greenup told the Missoula Independent, was the work of the federal government, which stood in violation of English Common Law and the laws of God. The Magna Carta and the US Constitution, he explained, enshrined the right to individual liberty, a right which President Bill Clinton and the legislators in Washington had abused.

Take, for example, the government's insistence that in common with all other Americans, he should have a social security number. Mr Greenup, a white-bearded rancher from Hamilton, Montana, refuses to have one, believing it would brand him with the mark of the Beast, the Anti-Christ.

"We need cleansing, maybe they have gotten so filthy we need blood to cleanse us," said Mr Greenup, who bases his philosophy on the ideas of the Patriot Movement - a loose national grouping to which Timothy McVeigh, who has been charged with the Oklahoma bombing, also belongs.

Mr Greenup makes no secret of the iniquity that drives his cause: the government's insistence that he should acquire licenses for his 10 pet elk.

Despite repeated warnings from the local authorities during the past year, he has refused to pay up and so, two weeks ago, an official posse arrived at his home. Mr Greenup had warned that if the sheriff came for him he would not go quietly. As it turned out, he had fled his property by the time the sheriff's men arrived.

They tranquillised his elk, loaded them on to trailers and headed for the city of Missoula, 50 miles north. The next day the Missoulian newspaper received a fax from Mr Greenup, who was in hiding, saying that his tormentors were the children of "Adolph Hitler". "In my opinion he is their boss. I believe his office is located within the pits of hell."

A week later one of the elk died, then another, then another, upon which Devon "Smut" Warren, the county commissioner for the Hamilton area, started receiving anonymous death threats. Not against himself but against his pet burro, a 25-year-old donkey which Mr Warren dresses up as a reindeer each Christmas. So far, the donkey has not been harmed, but Mrs Warren, anxious that her husband might become a victim of Mr Greenup's militia confederates, has suffered a heart attack.

Mrs Warren's heart attack is only one one symptom of a new phenomenon in what Americans like to regard as "the world's greatest democracy": remote rural communities in Montana and elsewhere are being afflicted, on a small scale, by a sense of menace more commonly associated with places such as El Salvador and Guatemala.

Individuals associated with the Patriot militias, dozens of which have sprouted all over the country in the last year, have declared the enemy to be the US government and all those associated with it. Last month the marshal of Darby, which is just south of Hamilton, was threatened by men with guns after he caught the daughter of a militiaman called Al Hamilton driving a car with an expired licence. The marshal made a quick getaway, but a team of officers arrested Mr Hamilton and charged him with intimidating a law-enforcement agent. In court last Wednesday, Mr Hamilton declared that as "a common law citizen" he refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court and accused the judge of treason for violating the American Constitution.

Last Friday the pressure became too much for the deputy sheriff of Hamilton, who resigned. The sheriff bemoaned the departure, noting that those opposed to his authority now had more armed men than he did.

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