From Maine to Montana, militia members across the country have reacted with disbelief, fear and suspicion over allegations that suspects held in the Oklahoma City bombing had links to a militia group in Michigan.
They fear a backlash against this growing citizen movement that distrusts the federal government, promotes what it sees as a strict interpretation of the Constitution and fiercely supports an American's right to bear arms. They insist they don't condone murder. They say they suspect the allegations are an attempt by federal authorities and the media to discredit the militia movement and curtail its activities.
The movement's chief critics, however, caution that the militias have a public front and a private agenda. "The private agenda is they are out to use their guns to someday take over the lawful authority of the government," said Morris Dees, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which has been monitoring the militia movement.
Nonetheless, the militia groups are on the defensive. Members appearing on national talk shows have tried to convince a wary public that they are not extremists but rather God-fearing, tax-paying citizens who believe their government has overstepped its bounds and eroded Americans' constitutional rights.
"We do not condone terrorism in any shape or form," said James "J. J." Johnson, a Cleveland utility worker and member of the Ohio Unorganized Militia. "I also resent the fact that the militia groups are being tied to white supremacist and any other racist groups. If a person went to an American Legion meeting and then went out and committed mass murder, would you blame the entire American Legion?"
Some militia members were quick to label the Oklahoma bombers as extremists who simply share their anti-government, pro-gun views. Paul T. Phillips of the Bay City Militia in Florida said militia groups "do not have the apparatus" to screen members.
"And by and large we're happy to get anyone who appears to be fit, who will salute the American flag and who appears to be a genuine American," said Mr. Phillips of Panama City, Fla. "The problem is some of these people are extremists of one sort or another. To paint the militia a nasty color because of the acts of the very few is not very sensible. Militias exist, maybe entirely, to maintain and enforce the Constitution."
In militia circles, reports and rumors have circulated since Wednesday's Oklahoma bombing suggesting that the explosion could not have been the work of angry individuals. Callers to Tom Valentine's Radio Free America program in St. Petersburg, Fla., a forum for arch conservatives and sympathizers of the militia movement, talked about "provocateurs." They talked about reports that two explosions -- not one -- were recorded by a seismograph in Oklahoma City, implying that the bomb was more sophisticated than reported.
Similar speculation has been voiced on the Internet. "Consider all that certain groups and elements within the federal government, and some of the interest groups supporting that government, stand to gain by this terrible and tragic event," said one Cleveland user.
Others are more direct in their suspicions.
"This might seem extreme to you, but it's quite possible the United States government orchestrated this attack to use against the militia organizations forming around the country," said Andrew Brown, a Delaware Minuteman who condemned the bombing.
Some are more circumspect, but the suggestion is there.
"We abhor this kind of action from any kind of entity, no matter what they profess or what they believe," Johnny M. Johnson, a regional commander of the Texas Constitutional Militia, said of the bombing. "This by any human standard is wrong. We would lead or follow any anyone who would pursue and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone involved in this action.
"We only hope," Mr. Johnson said, "that if it turns out to be a member of the inner circle of the government they take the same posture."
An official with the Michigan Militia Corps, one of the most public and vocal militia organizations in the country, said its command center in northern Michigan had received obscene phone calls.
The group's monthly field exercises held this weekend drew half the expected participants, said Ray Southwell, the group's chief of staff. Mr. Southwell blamed the poor turnout on fear and the Michigan unit's notoriety since federal authorities said two men picked up in connection with the Oklahoma bombing were former members of the militia.
"We were expecting about 150 state leaders and we only had about 60," Mr. Southwell said, referring to the weekend field exercises. "The fear out there is pretty extensive. But the individuals who showed up showed their great courage in continuing to stand for freedom."