When the FBI puts out a bulletin on symbols “used by Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists,” and it looks like a catalog of T-shirts half the country might want to wear, it’s a strong indication that the feds are way off-base. It gets even sillier when part of the bulletin resembles a brochure for a Revolutionary War museum. Then again, George Washington and the Continental Army werearguably, “Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists,” which is a reminder that governments aren’t necessarily the good guys.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Domestic Terrorism Symbols Guide hit the news August 2 when it was shared by sources, including Mississippi attorney Steven Stamboulieh, who posted the bulletin on Twitter. He told me he got it from the FBI and that he followed up with a query for more information.
Good luck to him. My own email to the FBI Counterterrorism Division bounced back because I “don’t have permission to send to it.” Inquiries to other FBI sources received a polite brush-off and then silence. Maybe I’m wrong, but the feds seem unhappy this bulletin is in the wild, and with good reason.
The first section of the document includes a modified version of the American flag with an igloo in the canton representing the ideologically diverse “Boogaloo” movement. Characterized in 2020 by Reason‘s Zach Weissmuller as “Gen Z Second Amendment activism,” the movement has faded from public view, but is apparently still on the minds of feds. Also featured is the black-and-gold flag of anarcho-capitalism representing, as the FBI notes, those “advocating the State be eliminated or minimized and that public services be provided by private competing companies in a free market.” Then there’s the Punisher skull popularized by the vigilante of comic books, movies, and TV and, ironically, embraced by law enforcement (maybe a fed scanned his own tattoo for the image). Also included are a “warrior culture” hoplite helmet and an electrical resistance symbol, implying that electrical engineers and fans of the movie 300 about the Battle of Thermopylae are a sketchy bunch.
Also highlighted is the flag flown at the Battle of Gonzales during the Texas Revolution, with a cannon and the words “Come and Take It” on a white field. That phrase is a translation of the classical Greek “molon labe,” now a Second Amendment rallying cry originally recorded as Spartan King Leonidas’s response when ordered by the Persians to lay down his weapons at Thermopylae.
This is quite the grab bag of anti-authoritarian images popular with individualists, history buffs, and at least a few cops. Most of them can be found for sale on T-shirts and bumper stickers. The FBI seems to understand that it’s throwing a pretty wide net with a collection of political symbols and the logo of a popular entertainment franchise. The bulletin notes that “the use or sharing of these symbols alone should not independently be considered evidence of [Militia Violent Extremism] presence or affiliation or serve as an indicator of illegal activity….” But despite this disclaimer the document gets even worse.
“Historical American symbols, representing gun rights and limited government,” the bulletin helpfully annotates next to an image of the famous revolutionary-era Gadsden “don’t tread on me” flag in the “commonly referenced historical imagery or quotes” section. Also in the rogues’ gallery are the Liberty Tree, the Betsy Ross flag, and generic “Revolutionary War imagery.”
Really? Even with a lame disclaimer attached that not every “don’t tread on me” enthusiast is dangerous, what use is served by associating imagery and ideas from the founding of the country with “Militia Violent Extremism” (MVE)? Unless, that is, the FBI is trying to tell us it’s not comfortable with that whole liberty and Bill of Rights thing which, to be honest, is entirely believable. Be on the lookout for feds snooping around Boston’s Freedom Trail and the Valley Forge museum.
Page two (yes, that was all on the first page) lists quotes, events that anger many people (Waco and Ruby Ridge), and names a few organizations that were not affiliated with the Continental Congress. Among these are Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, some of whose members were indicted for actions related to the January 6 Capitol riot, including troublingly political “seditious conspiracy” charges. Then the feds step in it again.
“Mainstream militia, nationwide, mostly online activity, low history of violence,” the FBI notes of American Contingency, one organization mentioned. So, the feds are scrutinizing internet debating societies? OK, the feds are scrutinizing debating societies again. The FBI has an unpleasant history of targeting critics of the government for doing no more than saying harsh things about the powers-that-be.
“The FBI … has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups,” the Senate’s Church Committee complained in 1976 .
Things haven’t really changed, except for a growing fixation on the Gadsden flag. In 2016, after LaVoy Finicum was killed during a standoff with authorities over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, a federally funded intelligence-sharing “fusion center” issued a heads-up to police to look out for the protesters even though “no credible threats to law enforcement are present at this time.”
“The report includes several ‘visual indicators’ to help police determine whether they’re dealing with ‘extremist and disaffected individuals,'” Reason‘s Jesse Walker wrote. “These range from images associated with specific political groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, to a more generic patriotic symbol, the Gadsden flag. … One of the ‘indicators’ is a slightly altered version of a popular picture with fans of the Grateful Dead.”
“There was no intent to offend or single out individuals and groups who use these symbols for historical or legitimate purposes,” the fusion center apologized after a wave of pushback. “We will attempt to articulate those distinctions clearer in the future.”
Apparently, articulating those distinctions involve rolling in the Punisher logo and the Betsy Ross flag.
True, the US is suffering a wave of political violence from across the political spectrum. But instead of cooling tensions, government officials seem to see legitimate fears of riots or terrorism as opportunities to conflate those who actually intend harm with peaceful critics of government and authority. They throw a few bad actors in with people who don’t like being bossed around and try to smear everybody with guilt by association. They’ve taken this so far as to present symbols of this country’s founding as potential threats.
When the FBI tells you that fans of images and ideas associated with the American Revolution are the bad guys, take them at their word. The feds are telling us something very revealing about themselves.