- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

This book you can judge by its cover. "Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman" offers the rise and fall of John Pitner, self-proclaimed founder of the Washington State Militia, one of the many ultra-right "Patriot" groups that torqued up the national psyche a few pre-September 11 years ago. The cover features a flag motif: red and white stripes, but where the stars ought to be, is a photo of a man's hands holding a rifle against his chest. The photo is cropped at the neck; the man has no head. Whether this be John Pitner is never made clear. The book offers no other photographs. The subject never appears.

The author does. Jane Kramer's portrait, part glamour shot, part hand-against-cheek writerly pose, appears on the back flap, radiating a darn-I'm-good intellectual self-satisfaction.

And so she is. Darn good. So good that this book has less to do with Mr. Pitner, or anything else, than with Jane Kramer's skills, Jane Kramer's sensibilities and Jane Kramer's preferences. It's a superb exercise in impressionistic portraiture, fully befitting the New Yorker's "Letter from Europe" correspondent and author of eight previous books.

But you don't have to be a militia supporter to come away uneasy.

Mr. Pitner, by all accounts, was a state-of-the-art loser. Mostly unemployed, he lived with his wife (until she left him) in a mobile home in Whatcom County, Washington, about 50 miles north of Seattle. He absorbed the standard right-wacko notions about how the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve, the United Nations and the Jews are destroying America. He claimed, among other things, that David Rockefeller was laser-zapping his brain and wrecking his plans to build a spaceship that could prospect and mine the solar system.

He found brief stature and notoriety by starting up his own militia, replete with high-tech weaponry (fill a condom with Drano, stick in some dynamite, let 'er rip), quasi-military and hyper-conspiratorial jargon, and sufficient menace to get the group infiltrated by the FBI, busted and Mr. Pitner sent to prison. He's out now.

The author spoke with Mr. Pitner many times, and admits that she never really sorted out what she calls, so aptly, his "commute" between reality and fantasy. She never attended any of their secret meetings, so has little idea what (if anything) really happened. Nor does her account of his trial add up to much. In lieu of meaningful, coherent narrative, she skewers Mr. Pitner. The effect is often hilarious, but the cumulative impression comes down to bullying … a brilliant, successful woman beating up on a sad, sick man.

She also scorns Bellingham, Whatcom County's main mini-city, a lovely seaport/university campus place with lots of money and very few nonwhite faces. She scorns Bellingham's liberals as not much more than recreational crusaders who are unable or unwilling to confront the militia peril. In some ways, she detests them even more than the militia wackos.

She admits freely that her prior life had not exactly prepared her to deal with certain aspects of the "American mainstream" and dutifully invokes historian Richard Hofstadter's "paranoid style of American politics" as all-purpose explanation for the right. But she seems curiously unwilling to extrapolate anything from her condemnation of Bellingham to liberalism as a whole.

In short, this book is a beautifully crafted, often insightful, always fluid and engaging sneer. It contributes little to our understanding of the peril, and nothing to the matter of how to deal with it. And it left me with an uneasiness that I first encountered many years ago, as a Marine captain serving aboard a helicopter carrier in the Mediterranean.

My gunnery sergeant dropped by to inform me that one of my men was a neo-Nazi, and that he'd been expounding the virtues of national socialism to some Dutch commandos we had aboard rather the wrong people to approach in this manner. Scuttlebutt was that they were talking about killing my wayward corporal. I immediately went rushing down to get him out of there, but stopped while hanging on a ladder and asked myself,

"What am I rushing for?"

I never did find an adequate answer for keeping that kid alive long enough to have him run out of the Marine Corps. "Lone Patriot" might have provided one. It did not. All I know is, when confronting this kind of dangerous insanity, it's both wrong and risky to toss it off with a sneer.

Maybe that's answer enough.

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