Events over period of years led to 1983 shootoutA combination of extreme views, racism and a slow farm economy created the potential for violence that erupted on a county road north of Medina 30 years ago today.
By: By Keith Norman, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun
A combination of extreme views, racism and a slow farm economy created the potential for violence that erupted on a county road north of Medina 30 years ago today.
James Corcoran, author of the book “Bitter Harvest,” which details the shootout and the events that led up to it, said the shootout between Gordon Kahl and others versus law enforcement had a long history before the first shot was fired.
Corcoran wrote the book after reporting on the shootout and aftermath for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The book has been reprinted three times and served as the basis for a made-for-television movie about the incident. He has also written “Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat” concerning the growth of militias and anti-government movements.
The Feb. 13, 1983, shootout occurred when U.S. marshals and other law enforcement officers attempted to apprehend fugitive tax protestor Gordon Kahl for parole violations. In a brief shootout that Sunday evening, U.S. Marshal Kenneth Muir, 53, and U.S. Deputy Marshal Robert Cheshire, 32, were killed.
Kahl disappeared from the scene, which prompted a massive manhunt and a flood of media coverage. Almost four months later, he died in another shootout in Arkansas that also killed a county sheriff there.
“There was a blend of religious extremism and anti-government extremism along with anti-Semitism because they believed the Jews were running the government,” Corcoran said in a telephone interview from Simmons Undergraduate College in Boston, Mass. “At the same time we were losing a substantial number of farmers each day. They used the farm economy as a point of reference. There was a farm movement and these guys tried to use that. Told people ‘it’s the government foreclosing on us.’”
John Helgeland, professor of history and religion at North Dakota State University, said the religious component was one of the principle causes of the shooting.
“Apocalyptic religious violence,” Helgeland said. “It features notions of satanic attacks on God’s good people. They saw government as evil. In this case the evil dealt with taxes.”
Corcoran said the whole incident had been set in motion years earlier by Gordon Kahl.
“Kahl had made it clear he wouldn’t go back to prison,” he said. “He wouldn’t pay taxes but his taxes were never that much, he never made that much.”
He was also vocal about his beliefs. In 1976 he appeared on a television show in Texas encouraging everyone not to pay income taxes.
“The more he said ‘no,’ the more it became an issue,” Corcoran said. “Sooner or later law enforcement said they couldn’t have that.”
In the meantime, Kahl connected with people with similar views.
“Like-minded people gather together,” Helgeland said. “Then it just takes a trigger.”
The shooting at Medina is seen as a starting point for a series of incidents of domestic terrorism.
“It was the first eruption that signaled the period of time that prompted the militia and other anti-government movements,” Corcoran said. “When you are convinced the world is wrong and against you, you’ll do those kinds of things.”
In the years that followed, other incidents of anti-government violence have occurred.
“It is all part and parcel to this incident,” Corcoran said. “Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing all are the same kinds of people. To the people involved in those incidents, Gordon Kahl was seen as a martyr.”
Corcoran called the incident a significant event.
“Nothing in North Dakota history approaches this,” he said. “The flirtation with the (Ku Klux) Klan in the 1920s is similar but nothing like this.”
The Ku Klux Klan was active in western North Dakota in the 1920s, mostly against religious targets.
While the incidents make news, Corcoran doesn’t see the anti-government movement gaining traction.
“They are small numbers of people that can cause harm to a lot of people,” he said. “People die, families get hurt, but they’ll never bring the government to its knees.”
Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at email@example.com