Will the militias die with McVeigh?

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The militias first came to US national attention in the autumn of 1994, in the run-up to Newt Gingrich's election as Speaker, on the shoulders of the angry white male. Civil rights groups termed them "armed and dangerous", but they appeared in network news reports as a kind of Dad's Army, good-natured, pot-bellied men in fatigues puffing down lanes in Michigan.

At that time the National Rifle Association was running rampant on the issue of gun control, some of its material describing government officials as "jack-booted thugs". Militia leaders talked of preparing for war with the tyrannous government in Washington, and spoke of their anger over the deaths of 80 armed cultists at Waco, Texas.

There has never been an exact count of how many people the militias enlisted. There were extremists of all types, racist and religious, though the militias' pro-gun, anti-tax message also attracted crowds of the curious.

But the bubble burst on 19 April 1995, when Timothy McVeigh, inspired by militia beliefs if not an active member, planted a giant home-made bomb that killed 168 people, including a score of children in a creche, and narrowly missed demolishing an entire office block. On Friday, by a unanimous vote of the jury, he was sentenced to death.

Americans celebrated the outcome with almost equal unanimity yesterday. The defence had fired public outrage by suggesting McVeigh's motives were somehow American and patriotic, that he shared the revolutionary spirit and was a product of his society. The jurors, though, did not buy it. When asked to find in mitigation whether "Timothy McVeigh believed deeply in the ideals upon which the United States was founded" they answered no: 12-0.

The next question is whether his trial, which ran like clockwork over three months and never strayed into far-flung conspiracies, might finally lay to rest what seemed almost an episode of collective insanity in small town and rural America.

If there were no others involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, there may be others capable of it. On Friday a civil rights watchdog group based on the west coast, the Coalition for Human Dignity, was faxed a copy of a leaflet declaring McVeigh a hero of the Aryan race. It was signed by the Erulian Brotherhood, a name no one had heard of, and was not taken particularly seriously. But CHD workers, like others who monitor the far right, insist that the threat is still there. "There'll be more violence, without a doubt, against people of colour, attempts to blow up federal offices," said staffer Robert Crawford. "It doesn't take many people to do a lot of damage, if they are determined."

The CHD and other groups suggest the militias are now smaller but potentially more dangerous, with a hard core operating underground. But others deny that. John Schlosser, a former militia organiser in Colorado, says the militias are virtually non-existent, partly because trying to organise them was like "trying to herd cats".

Congressional inquiries into events at Waco have helped to defuse the anger, and Mr Schlosser believes Federal agents have learned their lesson, taking a softly-softly approach to both the Freemen and the recent siege of Texas separatists. The remaining militias are paper tigers, he insists - and Oklahoma City will not happen again.

The former militiaman still believes that McVeigh was set up, but that does not stop him from saying the bomber should be hung publicly, or put before a firing squad. "If he wants to be a martyr, by God we ought to fulfill his desire."