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Column: When 'militia' is a loaded word

Column: When 'militia' is a loaded word


Militias are in the news after last week's events in Michigan. Members of the "Wolverine Watchmen" were among those arrested in the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Merriam-Webster lists this as its third definition of militia: a private group of armed individuals that operates as a paramilitary force and is typically motivated by a political or religious ideology (specifically: such a group that aims to defend individual rights against government authority that is perceived as oppressive).

Discussion of militias inevitably gets caught up in the never-ending debate about the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which 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.

But my purpose here is not to discuss gun rights, but rather the word militia.

Arguably the framers of the Constitution didn't anticipate the military of today. And it is easy to see how gun rights and militias get intertwined.

But the use of "militia" to describe the men accused Thursday in an alleged plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seems out of date.

Militias, according to all the reporting I have read over the last several years, come in various sizes and shapes. Some are just guys roaming around the woods shooting their rifles. All have a distrust of government and authority, and a few pursue that distrust to violent extremes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center last year identified 576 "extreme antigovernment groups" in the country, including 181 self-styled militias, several of them in Michigan.

Late last week, our USA TODAY Network standards editor, Michael McCarter sent out this guidance:

"Avoid the terms militia or guard to describe an armed group of people. They may be using the term to convey authority they do not have.

"Be specific, and use phrases to describe who they are: armed men, armed men and women, etc. If the terms appear in the name of a group, they may be used in the name with a description of the group. If militia or guard appears in a quote, it may be used in the quote."

It's interesting that the FBI used the word "militia" in documents supporting the arrest of the plotters. I don't think any of us should underestimate the threat some of these groups represent to our democracy.

But McCarter is right, and we will avoid the term "militias" going forward.

The men taken into custody this week are innocent until proven guilty. But the crimes they stand accused of are acts of terror, not military valor. We should not be confused just because the alleged perpetrators claim to be motivated by patriotism, anti-fascism, or any other ideology.

Late last week, Gov. Whitmer weighed in with her own tweet: "They are not 'militias.' They're domestic terrorists endangering and intimidating their fellow Americans. Words matter."

Journalists are passionate about the First Amendment and the protections therein. We will defend the right of Americans to say what they think about the issues of the day. That is certainly being thoroughly exercised in the current political atmosphere.

But advocacy of violence crosses the line. That runs counter to everything American democracy is about.

The plot described in the FBI affidavit is a blueprint for terror. And we will describe those accused of conspiring to kidnap the governor as what they are: suspected domestic terrorists.

Peter Bhatia is the Editor of the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at This article was distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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