Around the country, a conspiracy theory about the government constructing secret concentration camps is taking on new life.
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — It looks like nothing more than a 2,500-acre military complex, but sinister plans are afoot. One day soon — if it hasn’t happened already — law-abiding U.S. citizens will be rounded up and imprisoned here by their oppressive federal government.
It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes to see the traffic signs that direct FEMA trucks this way and that: This is one of the 800 or more detention camps being built by a government gone mad.
At least that’s what more and more Americans believe. A fear that the federal government will concoct a pretense for declaring martial law and confine patriotic dissidents to concentration camps — a conspiracy theory that goes back decades and was especially prevalent during the militia movement of the 1990s — is spreading as the country experiences a surge in groups on the radical right.
In the last years, FOX News personality Glenn Beck devoted airtime on three shows to the theory, saying he “wanted to debunk it” but could not. (He eventually did, but only after much criticism.)
Oath Keepers, a conspiracy-minded police and military organization, listed the 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” including any command to enforce martial law or herd Americans into concentration camps. And in September, William Lewis Films and Gary Franchi Productions released “,” a video that alleges the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is behind the camps. Lewis is a veteran maker of conspiracy-minded videos; Franchi heads Restore the Republic, an antigovernment “Patriot” group with militia-like beliefs.
The 90-minute film opens with newsreel footage of Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps on the West Coast during World War II and a narrator declaring that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government “again went into open roundup mode.” He adds, “Is it possible history will repeat itself?” For the next 90 minutes, a Who’s Who of conspiracy diehards suggests that it is.
Many of the purported detention camps are supposedly on military bases around the country, including some that are closed. The radical-right conspiracy theorists say that nearby railroad tracks and aircraft runways near many of these sites are proof there are FEMA camps in the vicinity, because this is how prisoners will be easily moved.
They also claim that razor wire atop tall fences around some of these facilities provides a key clue to their real purpose. The razor edges are directed inward, not outward, they say, because they aren’t meant to keep out trespassers. They’re there to hold prisoners.
One long-time Patriot conspiracy theorist, retired Phoenix police officer Jack McLamb, has gone so far as to claim that the government has placed unobtrusive colored dots on people’s mailboxes so that when martial law is declared, foreign troops serving the “New World Order” will know what’s to be done with the people at each address. A blue dot your mailbox: You’re taken to a FEMA camp. Pink: You’ll be used for slave labor. Red: You are shot in the head immediately.
Myth at Maxwell
On a long list of murky origins that regularly circulates on the Internet, Maxwell Air Force Base is identified as already operating a civilian prison camp with a small support staff and inmate population. That’s true, but it’s a minimum-security federal prison camp with about 900 inmates, not a FEMA facility. And it’s hardly a secret facility — the prison is regularly mentioned in the newspapers and has been operating for years.
Conspiracy theorists don’t say exactly where the supposed FEMA detention camp might be at Maxwell. But one of them shot a nine-minute video that appeared last year on YouTube and had been viewed by 1,491 people at press time. In it, the unnamed videographer locates what he thinks must be the spot. He points out orange road signs that say “FEMA Trucks” with arrows pointing to the routes they should follow.
He eventually videotapes what he describes as a watchtower, dozens of large tents, an old ambulance, and what he says are picnic tables and games on the other side of a six-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire. The fact that a low-slung building inside the wire has a loudspeaker on it is “awfully odd,” he asserts.
In a silent, isolated corner of Maxwell is indeed the supposedly ominous tower, perhaps three dozen tents and other structures shown in the video. Some days, the only sign of life here is an occasional jogger. The place looks about as sinister as a deserted summer camp. There is razor wire atop the six-foot tall chain-link fence, but it is facing outward. The Air Force is trying to keep people out, not in.
That’s because this is an officer-training site, not a secret FEMA concentration camp. Officers — even ROTC cadets — come here to train, sleeping in tents that are part of a simulated “deployed environment.” They are taught military skills including the basics of defending their base, land navigation and field medicine, Lt. Col. Mark Ramsey said during a recent tour of the site.
On a 35-degree morning, 354 Air Force personnel were going through drills. There was no evidence of a detention camp — but there were innocent explanations for everything the anonymous videomaker discovered. The watchtower? It’s used for rappelling on one side, rocking climbing on another.
The tent city? It’s meant to replicate austere battlefield conditions and has been there since 1999, says Phil Berube, a spokesman for the base. The ambulance? A prop “used by the officer trainees who will become military doctors and nurses to give a semblance of battlefield conditions,” he explains. It’s not even operable.
The picnic tables and games? There are benches in open-air shelters, but no picnic tables. The shelters provide shade from Alabama’s searing summer heat and double as informal outdoor classrooms, Ramsey says. The “games” are a physically demanding obstacle course. That “awfully odd” speaker, the one mounted on that low-slung building? It’s affixed to a warehouse containing cots and sleeping bags, and is a means to alert those in training of urgent news, such as a violent storm approaching.
And the tell-tale “FEMA Trucks” signs? They direct workers to staging areas on the base where they can coordinate efforts, collect supplies and respond to crises in the region, such as providing relief after a hurricane or tornado.
FEMA camp stories have been around a long time. Almost three decades ago, back in 1982, a newsletter of the extreme-right and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus warned that “hardcore Patriots” would be imprisoned in FEMA detention camps.
Some versions during the militia heyday of the 1990s had urban street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, rather than domestic or foreign troops, rounding up antigovernment patriots.
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