Big Time in the Desert

This ASU prof's examination of the Minuteman Project points out both the obvious and the valuable

I suspect that few of the veterans of the media event that was the 2005 Minuteman Project will read this slim study of the political theory behind the post-Sept. 11 "border vigilante" movement.

It's not that it presents members of the Minutemen and similar groups in a wholly negative light; actually, many of the voices in the book seem downright rational. It's more that theory can't really get to the heart of the matter, and this book, like most academic endeavors, is all about theory—and it's a rather obvious theory at that, finding that people who join groups like the Minutemen are worried more about their national and personal "sovereignty" than the human rights of the "others," making it easier for them to see whole groups of people—Mexicans, say—as an "exception" to be treated as, at best, a public threat, and at worst, invaders with an insidious plan to take back the Gadsden Purchase through baby-making.

While author Roxanne Doty, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University, does her best to put an objective academic distance between herself and members of the various groups she studies, she admits several times that she was often biting her tongue while hanging out in the desert. A portion of the proceeds of the book are going to No More Deaths and Humane Borders.

Doty comes closest to what I think is the simple truth behind Bush-era border vigilantism when she drops the theoretical constructs and writes like a journalist rather than a political scientist. In her opening chapter, "Fear and Loathing on the U.S.-Mexico Border," she describes the office of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, the onetime headquarters of the Minuteman Project, founded by ex-Californians Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist—still the two most famous names in border vigilantism. In the office, she sees two pictures hanging side by side: one with the blown-up words of Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, and the other a painting of Ann Coulter.

Her rage for theory allows Doty to miss, or perhaps to dismiss, the very simple impetus behind the Minutemen and their ilk: These guys are having fun. It's like Boy Scouts with guns. To a certain kind of man—and many of these men moved here with the idea that the West still is a place where a man can live like Wyatt Earp—camping in the desert with an armed posse, with binoculars and the squelch of walkie-talkies everywhere, is a fantasy come to life. If there are more members of the international press around than there are vigilantes, and if they are treating you with the same deference and seriousness as they would real soldiers who are actually protecting the homeland, well, so much the better.

That's not to say that Doty's book isn't useful. She uses reports and statistics gleaned primarily from the Southern Poverty Law Center to show the strong and poorly hidden links between the various border-vigilante groups, anti-immigration groups, "think tanks" and the neo-Nazi and white-supremacist movements. She also shows how media outlets like Fox News and CNN support and sustain vigilante groups through one-sided coverage, giving them a kind of legitimacy that may cloud the real impact and meaning, or lack thereof, of their camping trips along the border. Anyone who doubts that hate groups, Pat Buchanan-style anti-immigration groups and border vigilantes all have leaders, adherents and policies in common will want to look at Doty's research.

As of 2007, Doty writes toward the end of the book, the movement's founder, Chris Simcox, no longer lived in Tombstone, though his group was still active along the border. Simcox now lives in Scottsdale. That's a pretty big jump for a guy who in 2001 lost his job as a kindergarten teacher, his family and his life in California. Simcox tried to join the Border Patrol, Doty writes, but was turned down, because he was too old. When he decided to become a hunter of migrants and smugglers in 2003, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon on federal land and sentenced to two years of probation. Now, he's an internationally famous anti-immigration advocate, is running for the U.S. Senate and lives in one the nation's richest cities. The American Dream, it seems, is still within reach.