After Sept. 11, 2001, future Minuteman leader Chris Simcox created an answering machine message proclaiming he would only speak to people who recited the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
It was part of a mental unraveling that eventually led an ex-wife to gain full custody of a son. Among other things, she was concerned about his rantings of an apocalyptic end to the United States.
Simcox doesn’t dispute that he went a bit nutty. He eventually headed to Arizona and began organizing what became the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps -- the group Kansas City park board member Frances Semler later naively joined.
Semler, I believe, is like others who have been lured by Minuteman rhetoric. Sometimes, the group makes sense: It speaks of looking out for the average U.S. citizen, of raising valid concerns about illegal immigration and of understandable, but often overblown, fears about the growing Latino population.
But for those people who believe all Minutemen have been unfairly tarnished as armed vigilantes: Simcox was convicted in 2004 of carrying a concealed weapon on federal park land as he tracked immigrants.
Here is a Simcox quote, one that is hard to misinterpret: "These are enemies who are wrecking our economy," he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times magazine in 2003 in discussing illegal Latino immigrants. "This is about national security. If Simcox dies in a blaze of border gunfire, so be it. Damn them. That’s how much I care about my country."
Not exactly the type of patriotism that Americans should be praising, especially today -- the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Sept. 11 hijackers were not Latino and they did not arrive through the southern border. In fact, most came legally to the United States.
That said, Minutemen have gathered far more press than their antics deserve, in Kansas City and elsewhere. They have done very little here, past holding a few gatherings and attempting to scare off Latino laborers by showing up at construction sites in Johnson County.
Most local members, including Semler, have never been to the U.S.-Mexico border. The one afternoon I spent a few years ago with Simcox, I found him more a lost soul looking for a cause, than threatening.
Simcox’s counterpart is Jim Gilchrist, a Californian who heads up the Minuteman Project. They used to work together, but had a falling out. Gilchrist, in his book Minutemen, The Battle to Secure America’s Borders, talks a lot about illegal immigration as a "Trojan horse invasion." He recites conspiracy theories about Mexicans retaking U.S. land and reiterates the need for "an urgent call to arms."
Here is where reality often begins to slip from the message of the Minutemen. At about 44 million -- 15 percent of the population -- Latinos are the largest U.S. minority group.
It is not racist to have questions and concerns about this dramatic change. But only about 6 million of that 44 million are illegal immigrants from Mexico. So when Minutemen focus on a southern border "invasion," and losing the American heritage, just who is of concern? The vast majority of Latinos in the nation -- 38 million people -- are legally here, if not U.S. citizens.
Gilchrist also wrote recently of "adversarial organizations who have banded together to force their way into U.S. territory in an effort to establish dominion over the United States of America." Included in groups Gilchrist regularly lists as offensive, the Anti-Defamation League and the Catholic Church. Yes, Jews and Catholics, long the targets of white supremacists.
Many readers lately have thoughtfully scanned the Web sites for both Minuteman organizations, noting efforts to steer clear of the Aryan Nation and assorted white supremacists who initially flocked to join. But instead of applauding Minutemen for attempting keep such people out, shouldn’t we be asking, "Why do so many people of this ilk want to join?"
The answer is because some of the Minuteman message is extremely appealing to these groups. Several of the more offensive and verbally violent offshoots of the Minutemen were started by people denied membership. In other instances, people have been disturbed by what they heard and resigned. Like the Texas Minutewoman who quit when members "wanted to shoot the taco meat."
Today of all days, when the focus should be on the people who died on Sept.11, you have to wonder what those souls would say to the way Minutemen organizations have latched onto and warped their memory.
It is doubtful they would find reason to praise this brand of divisive "patriotism."