There was a time when I paid a lot of attention to the anti-government groups around me. In 2002, the Aryan Nations was establishing an outpost on a grassy property on the New York-Pennsylvania border, and I visited as a newspaper reporter.
The group bore watching, although at the time, I couldn't have said precisely why. The deadly bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City had been fairly recent, but these odd people were simply holding rallies to denounce hated groups -- Jews, blacks, federal agents -- and drink beer.
I was reminded of my long-ago apprehension last week, when a Bonnie and Clyde-like white supremacist couple shot two young Las Vegas police officers in the back and the neck, killing them. Jerad Miller, 31, and his wife, Amanda, 22, draped one body with a swastika and a yellow Gadsden flag, which depicts a coiled snake and the words, "Don't Tread on Me."
The Millers proclaimed the "beginning of the revolution" in a pizza parlor booth, with the murders of Officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31 -- purported agents of a tyrannical government.
Some will claim the Millers acted alone, but the duo was abetted by a twisted subspecies of American life that nurses paranoid fantasies. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks 939 hate groups operating across the country, an alienated population that we on the East Coast often ignore as "out there" in Idaho or Nevada.
But we have strands of these beliefs among us: in the tea party movement, among gun rights advocates and within survivalist groups training for the post-apocalypse.
Clearly, it's legitimate to argue about the national debt, the federal deficit and government overreach, as well as to stand up for free speech and Second Amendment rights. But these groups also give cover to dangerous people like the Millers.
And just as with Muslims confronted with terrorists in their midst, the sane people in the anti-government wing need to identify, expel and denounce those who take their creeds to the extreme. The tea party and the National Rifle Association lose legitimacy when they allow the Millers to parade their arguments and symbols without comment. When anti-government rants fill the echo chamber on and on, the unbalanced take it as permission, and perhaps even as a duty. The average cop or bystander begins to look like the enemy.
After killing the cops, the Millers armed themselves with their badges and weapons and strode across the street to a Walmart. A customer returning a modem heard gunfire and ran toward it. Joseph Wilcox, 31, grabbed his legal, concealed gun to help make sure nobody got hurt, and police said Amanda Miller shot him in the back.
So much for the NRA's argument that a good guy with a gun can stop evil. Hours later, after a shootout in the store with police, both Millers were dead.
When I was reporting on white supremacists in Pennsylvania, one phone call led me to a college professor who thought the Aryan Nations and its fellows had a realistic claim that the government was out to get them. "Read up on it before you write about it," he urged me. I dutifully learned about Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, where Americans were killed by federal agents.
The Millers probably thought they were claiming their place in this line of martyrs to government tyranny. But those who display these stories like badges of victimhood, without moderation, must answer to the families of the three innocent dead people in Las Vegas.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.