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In February 1983, on the plains of North Dakota, there occurred a historic melodrama. Through both the local and national media the public followed the Gordon Kahl saga from his gunfight in Medina, North Dakota, to the national manhunt and, finally, his fatal capture in Arkansas. However, neither the national media nor the local media portrayed the story as Kahl himself saw it. For he interpreted events as a demonic melodrama, with a world filled with good and evil, Christs and Antichrists. As portrayed in his letters and writings, his reality was a vision of the world very different from that of the average citizen. This study will analyze the words and deeds of Gordon Kahl to discover the differences between his demonic melodrama and the drama of the mainstream media.
But before moving to a discussion of the demonic melodrama involved in this story, the specific events leading up to Gordon Kahl's fiery death need to be chronicled. Prior to the winter evening of Sunday, February 13, 1983, only a few people knew of Gordon Kahl, his deep convictions about tax resistance and his association with the militant Posse Comitatus. That evening, federal authorities planned to apprehend Gordon Kahl for his failure to report to parole officials. Previously, Kahl had been convicted of tax evasion and had served a term in a Texas prison. However, when he was released, Kahl refused to comply with the conditions of his parole. As a result, on February 13, 1983, a joint force of local and federal law enforcement officers attempted to apprehend him as he left a meeting in Medina, North Dakota. With him were his wife Joan, his son Yorie, and a fellow tax protester, Scott Faul. The 63-year-old Kahl was heavily armed and determined to resist arrest, just as he had forewarned. A gun battle erupted. When it was over, two U.S. Marshals were lying dead, two others were wounded. Yorie Kahl received gunshot wounds and stayed at the scene. The others escaped. Later that evening, Joan Kahl was arrested at a nearby hospital where she had come to inquire about her son. Scott Faul was arrested the next day. Kahl's whereabouts remained a mystery until he resurfaced four months later in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. When an Arkansas sheriff approached the door of the house where Kahl received sanctuary, he, too, was shot to death. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers then laid siege to the house. Kahl died in a blazing, bullet-ridden building.
However, like many underground movements, little was known about Kahl and the Posse Comitatus until the events on February 13, 1983. But when violence erupted, the media became focused on Kahl and his associates. For about sixteen weeks, North Dakotans, and more broadly. the national media audience, became aware of Kahl and the Posse Comitatus. The Medina violence had provided a platform upon which Kahl and others could espouse their views on taxes, the U.S. Constitution, Communism, and Jews.
The Gordon Kahl story became the number one North Dakota news story of 1983. Several reasons for its importance can be cited (Schmidt & de Graaf, 1982). First, the media usually cover three types of stories: 1) politics--the order of the establishment; 2) crime--deviations from the established order; and 3) celebrities--popular people. Media attention intensifies when two or more of the story-types are involved. In the Kahl story, a violent crime was committed for clearly political reasons. By evading taxation, he became involved in a crime, which later led to a deadly shoot-out. This intertwining of Kahl's crime and politics kept the story front page news in North Dakota.
A second reason for the intense media scrutiny involves the public interest angle. Quite naturally, the public seeks to know about any threatening aspect in society which may provoke violence or instability. In the Kahl story, the public learned that at least one person was willing to kill and be killed in a dispute over taxation.
Third, the chronology of events made for a great story. It was clearly structured: a beginning, a middle and an end. It contained all the elements of an ideal story (conflict, complication, crisis, and resolution).
Fourth, many readers may hold an ambivalent attitude toward violence and authority. Schmidt and de Graff (1982) reason that Westerners, in particular, are individualistic and accept authority only to the degree that it maintains social order. Sometimes this antipathy toward authority can take the form of sympathy for those, such as Kahl, who struggle against overwhelming power. In a sense, the Kahl case mirrors the Biblical battle of David and Goliath. On that night in Medina, a few men, who were in their own minds righteous and deeply convicted, battled a giant, oppressive foe and won. Kahl's subsequent death in Arkansas may have served to generate even greater sympathy for the underdog, Kahl himself.
Because Kahl's views of the events were extreme both in temperament and in political philosophy, those views were never fully reflected in the mainstream press. He believed that he was involved in a demonic melodrama that did not begin and end with him. His drama unfolded as a mere subplot to the story told by the rnainstream media. As the authorities pursued Kahl, news stories described the chase scenes in detail but not Kahl's ideology.
Several sources help to explain his rhetorical vision. The best sources come from his personal letters to the media. In 1981, for example, the Harvey (North Dakota) Herald published his letter responding to a bland article the Herald had carried about his tax protest. While in flight from authorities in 1983, he also wrote a sixteen page letter to James Wickstrom, self-proclaimed leader of the Posse Comitatus, and sent copies to several newspapers. Posse Comitatus literature is also helpful toward understanding Kahl's point of view.
Gordon Kahl was most widely known as a tax protester. In the national context, tax protesters use several arguments to justify nonpayment of taxes (Tax Rebels, 1983). First, and one of the most popular, is the "no dollar" defense. Such protesters assert that since the dollar has no silver or gold backing, it is not legal tender. It follows, therefore, that it cannot be considered money and there exists no basis for reporting it as taxable income. This argument has been unsuccessful in the tax courts.
As a second line of defense, tax protesters also seek constitutional protection from self-incrimination by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. Tax protesters reason that filling an income tax form, which identifies personal income against which taxes and penalties are levied, amounts to testifying against oneself. Therefore, Fifth Amendment rights are claimed as a protection against self-incrimination. As with the first argument, courts have repeatedly rejected this defense.
A third tax evasive tactic is to appeal to the constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Religion. Tax protesters often establish a tax-exempt church, donate their assets to the church, and appoint themselves as minister at no salary. The church pays all of their personal expenses. Because of the reluctance of the courts to rule on the church-state issue, this tactic has been somewhat more successful than either of the first two defenses (Tax Rebels, 1983).
A fourth defense is based on State's Rights. The Posse Comitatus, and others, believe that the Constitution of the United States prohibits the federal government from engaging in any activities not expressly designated by the Constitution. Furthermore, the Constitution does not establish an income tax. By this reasoning, the income tax is unconstitutional, illegal, and need not be paid. They also contend that any federal apparatus established to enforce such an "illegal law" is itself illegal. In this way, they believe that those governmental agencies that collect taxes or enforce tax collection are themselves unlawful.
The Posse literature declares that citizens have the constitutional duty to resist illegal laws and illegal government actions. Posse members believe that either the county sheriff or self-appointed citizens can form a posse for the purpose of making a citizen's arrest. This is particularly true if the "lawbreaker" is a government official sworn to uphold the Constitution. They reason that this posse has the right to use violence to uphold the law and take punitive action. The Posse's Statement of Purpose asserts that any government official who commits criminal acts or violates his oath of office "shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law" (C.L.E.R.C., p. 16).
Kahl's letter to the Harvey Herald (Kahl, 1981) used parts of this Posse argument verbatim. He believed that the income tax and the tax collectors were illegal, the courts which enforced these laws corrupt, and that an American citizen was compelled by the Constitution to resist such corruption. Finally, in order to analyze Gordon Kahl's philosophy in terms of a demonic melodrama, the analysis needs to begin with an outline using dramatic logic:
1) the actor--Gordon Kahl;
2) the acts--tax evasion, parole violations, resisting arrest, escaping authorities, and blazing death;
3) the plot line--the unfolding story of Kahl;
4) the scene--the context of the shootout and the tax protest;
5) style--the manners of the 63 year old Kahl;
6) motives--Kahl's reasons for his actions; and
7) the sanctioning agent--Kahl's justification for the events (Nimmo & Combs, 1983).
Dramatic communication becomes melodramatic when moral justice, suspense, anxiety, and clearly labeled characters dominate the action. When these elements increase in intensity and the actors see themselves in a religious context, the melodrama can become demonic. A demonic melodrama:
draws the characters as totally good and evil, retains a sentimental faith in the triumph of good, sketches plots of the intense peril of the triumph of evil..., and intersperses elements of adventure, mystery, romance and nightmare. The adventure is the heroic defeat of evil; the mystery is identifying the conspiracy; the romance is love winning over hate; the nightmare is the menace of evil (Nimmo & Combs, 1983, p. 197).
In short, the demonic melodrama pits good against evil. It is a fundamental struggle between an unregenerate, powerful, and conniving enemy and the soldiers of a noble cause. These "Crusaders" cannot compromise with evil. Ordinary political compromise must be discarded, since this is a holy mission whose combatants transcend petty political problems. Furthermore, in this theatrical context, the forces of good can and should seize any means to defeat the evil. In their estimation evil is cunning, powerful, and omnipresent. They reason that the onlyway it can be defeated is to use extreme means themselves. This leads to the demonic irony: "...good must imitate their perfected enemy by being as mean and ruthless as they envision evil" (Nimmo & Combs, 1983, p. 199).
Gordon Kahl further believed that the income tax, as the second plank of the Communist Manifesto, was instituted by the Communists as a means to enslave the American people. He believed that the Communists had successfully enacted the income tax in the United States. Furthermore, he argued that Communism was an inherently satanic movement (Kahl, 1981). Thus, by resisting the income tax, he was also resisting the two greatest evils in the world--Communism and Satan.
Kahl then took his rhetoric even deeper with the assertion that the Communists, themselves, were under the influence and control of the Jews. Throughout history, the demonic melodrama has indicted the Jews as conspirator of world control, a view Kahl embraced. He often referred to the "Jewish Communist Manifesto" believing that the United States had been "conquered and occupied by the Jews," as well as by "their hundreds [or] maybe thousands of front organizations doing their ungodly work" (Kahl, 1983). According to Kahl, one of the U.S. founding fathers (unnamed by Kahl) sought to include a provision in the Constitution that would have prevented Jews from living in the United States and taking control of the country. This founding father, according to Kahl, predicted that within 200 years, the Jews "would be sitting in their counting houses rubbing their hands, while our people would be slaving in the fields to support them" (Kahl, 1983). In Kahl's mind, that prophesy had been fully realized.
Extending this argument further still, Kahl asserted that the U.S. government had become "the American branch of the Synagogue of Satan" and equated paying income tax to "tithing." He linked the income tax, Jewish domination, and the demonic melodrama in his labeling of tax collectors as "the tithing collectors for the Synagogue of Satan" (Kahl, 1981). With this rhetorical vision, Kahl transformed a political issue, tax resistance, into a noble religious crusade.
Compelled by religious dogma, Kahl cited Scriptures from the Apostle Paul warning that a person becomes that which he serves. To obey evil was to become evil. In Kahl's view paying income tax was tantamount to obeying Satan thereby becoming a servant of the devil. By paying taxes, he would be condemning himself to Hell, and would spend "all eternity in the Lake of Fire." What was more, such taxes, according to Kahl, were collected to impoverish and starve "those who would support Christianity, and [enrich] and [nourish] those who would bring about its demise" (Kahl, 1981). By this reasoning, then, to pay income tax was to support the destruction of Christianity. Taxation became the battlefield of Christ and Satan. This thought process left Kahl with little ideological choice.
Kahl believed that his actions in the melodrama were relatively passive. It was the forces of evil that pursued him. In f Kahl's words, the arresting marshals tried to "deprive me [of] my life, my liberty, and my pursuit of happiness, because I refuse to be a Servant of Satan...." He believed that the U.S. marshals attempted to discredit him by labeling him "lawbreaker" while portraying themselves as the "Good Guys with the white hats" (Kahl, 1981). It was Kahl's contention that the U.S. marshals had acted on behalf of Satan. By refusing to pay his income tax, failing to report to his parole officer, and by resisting arrest, Kahl believed that he was executing his a patriotic and Christian duty. To do otherwise was to acquiesce to Satan.
As stated earlier, the Posse Comitatus literature legitimizes public death for corrupt government officials. Using this reasoning, Kahl attributed the deaths of the U.S. marshals to justifiable self-defense. He said that he took no pleasure in the deaths and injuries but, he wrote, "when you come under attack by anyone, it becomes a matter of survival" (Kahl, 1983). In 1981, he said, "I'm going to try to live by God's law as long as possible. When it isn't possible anymore, [I'll have to die a trying" (Anglin, p. 1B). Kahl praised his son Yorie, and his friend Scott Faul, for displaying "the qualities of first rate soldiers of Jesus Christ" (Kahl, 1983). Kahl believed they had acted to protect their lives, souls, and Christianity.
The demonic melodrama envisions an almost perfectly powerful, devious opponent. Kahl's vision of Satan embodied the Jews, Communism, and the U.S. Government. Together they created a thoroughly omnipresent antagonist. The nightmare of Kahl's a vision was that Satan would claim his soul and conquer the world. The adventure of Kahl and the other Christian crusaders was a quest to expose and defeat Satan, Communism, and the Jews and, by so doing, to reestablish Christ's constitutional government in the United States. The logic of his melodrama left him little choice but fatal confrontation with the enemy.
Seen in a larger context, the study of Kahl in Texas, North Dakota, and Arkansas has national implications. First, the eruption of the demonic melodrama in North Dakota fits the model identified by Nimmo and Combs, who maintain that the political, demonic fantasy "intensifies, perhaps fanatically, if the group is remote from the centers of power...." (Nimmo & Combs, 1983, p. 195). The event in Medina, North Dakota, a small town far from the center of national power and remote even by North Dakota standards, may be indicative of similar movements elsewhere. Second, North Dakota, a state with few news stories of national significance, the media can examine small news events that would a otherwise be overlooked in larger, more politically powerful regions. For example, the Kahl story in New York, Florida, or California, would have to compete with many other news events.
The study of Kahl's rhetorical vision provides a public view of at least one theme of underground ideology, with the clear potential for concomitant violence. Kahl may be an isolated incident, limited only to Texas, North Dakota, and Arkansas. Or he may be representative of similar demonic melodramas elsewhere currently unfolding even closer to the centers of power.
Anglin, Doug. (1981, April 30). "Gordon Kahl Holds Strong Tax Convictions." Harvey Herald, p. 1B.
Citizens Law Enforcement and Research Committee. (no Date). "The Posse Comitatus." C.L.E.R.C., Portland, Oregon.
Kahl, Gordon. (1981). Letter to the Editor. Copy of Original Letter.
Kahl, Gordon (1983). Letter to James Wickstrom. Associated Press.
Nimmo, Dan and Combs, James E. (1983). Mediated Political Realities. New York, NY: Longman.
Schmid, Alex P. and de Graaf, Jenny. (1982). Violence as Communication. London: Sage Publications.
Schneider, Jeff. (1981, Jan. 8). "Faul Stands Behind Right to Plead Fifth. " Harvey Herald.
"Tax Rebels Multiply--and Collectors Act." (1983, August 8). U.S. News and World Report. Pp. 38-40.