Taxes? What taxes?

The bizarre appeal of sovereign citizenship

The Bush administration needs to answer to the American public for launching a war based on misleading and bogus intelligence, says talk-radio host Brent Emory Johnson.

The "Patriot Act" and its planned follow-up, Patriot II, represent near-fascist attacks on the Bill of Rights, adds Johnson, who likewise believes that the still-escalating "War on Drugs" is a dangerous threat to civil liberties.

Which just goes to show what weird times we're living in when a major-league crackpot like Johnson actually starts to make sense.

Billing himself as a "freedom fighter," Johnson is one of the more visible proponents of a particularly flaky strain of political extremism known, variously, as the freedom movement, the sovereign citizen movement or the common law movement.

Generally, the members of this fringe group are disaffected, middle-aged white guys who are convinced that paying income taxes is strictly voluntary, that the United Nations is a Communist cabal and that FDR's New Deal was a heinous plot to enslave the American people.

In Smyrna recently to deliver an all-day seminar in a second-rate hotel conference room, Johnson, who heads an Oregon-based company called Freedom Bound International, dropped plenty of kooky ideas and conspiracy-theory anecdotes.

On the U.S. of A.: "We have no nation. It's a union, it's a federation of states."

On the Federal Reserve: "The Fed is arguably the most evil organization on the face of the planet."

On public schools: "The government wants to train your child to be a little worker. Don't endanger your child by turning it over to the government."

On firearm safety: "Don't fall prey to the myth that your kids are too young to handle guns."

On the war in Iraq: "The U.S. has bombed and gassed its own people and we're using that as justification to invade another country."

Doh! There you go again, Brent — voicing an appropriately outraged reaction to the falsehoods and hypocrisy that carried our nation into war.

One might imagine that, in these troubling, Ashcroftian times, Johnson's message — "Remember that the government is staffed with professional liars" — would hold an enhanced appeal for disillusioned Americans. Especially so, when you consider that a big chunk of each seminar consists of tips on how to get out of paying taxes.

And yet, a paltry nine people paid the $100 fee to attend the 12-hour Saturday lecture. Predictably, they consisted of eight middle-aged white guys, including one with long hair and a tractor cap, and a woman.

According to freedom movement dogma, the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax, was never properly ratified; thus, the IRS has no legal authority to take our money.

Like most of the movement's explanations, this one is based on impenetrable layers of pseudo-legal mumbo-jumbo. The first step to "opt out of the tax system," says Johnson, is to "give back" your Social Security number, which makes it tough for the Feds to track you. Next, request that your employer reclassify you as a "private contractor" and that none of your pay be withheld for taxes. And, voila! Suddenly you've become transparent to the IRS.

Unless, of course, it doesn't work.

"It's bunk," says Tom Cullinan, a tax attorney with Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan in Atlanta. "All of the arguments [against federal income taxes] have been entertained and rejected by the courts."

Cullinan, who makes his living helping big-money clients settle disputes with the IRS, says tax courts are becoming clogged with lawsuits by nutcases trying to use arcane legal arguments to prove that taxes are illusory.

"They're going to lose and they may have to pay interest to the IRS," he says, adding that the IRS has begun stepping up enforcement, throwing some scofflaws behind bars. Earlier this year, the IRS reported that at least 152,000 Americans have filed such bogus tax returns.

With the aforementioned SSN ploy, "you're essentially trying to hide your earnings, which can get you in a lot of trouble," Cullinan warns.

Johnson insists he's never heard of a client being thrown in jail for following his advice. Yet just last month, a federal grand jury indicted a Texas businessman on 27 counts of tax evasion as part of a new IRS crackdown on tax protesters. And federal judges around the country have recently ordered several of Johnson's fellow freedom movement consultants to stop selling "fraudulent tax advice" or face stiff penalties.

But, as Johnson explains, tax avoidance is only a small part of the message he's trying to spread. The main thrust is that Americans need to wake up and reclaim their sovereignty, or the set of God-given rights and common-law privileges guaranteed by the Constitution and the first 10 Amendments.

The main barrier to enjoying these rights is, you guessed it, the government, which constantly grabs at more power, chips away at our personal liberties and infiltrates our private lives. Ultimately, the Feds would like nothing better than to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and sell us out to the U.N. to become revenue-generating wage slaves under a one-world government controlled by a handful of multinational corporations.

Which, when you think about it, pretty much sums up the Bush administration's domestic agenda (except for the wacko part about the U.N.). Hmm, maybe these guys are on to something after all.

Joe Roy, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, has been keeping an eye on the freedom movement for some time now. The movement's most extreme proponents — the Montana Freeman, Timothy McVeigh and various militia groups — commonly overlap into anti-Semitism, white supremacy and Christian identity, he says.

"The concept is that there's a huge, faceless enemy that's out there to get them," Roy explains. "Most of these people are looking for someone else to blame so they can get control over their lives. That's why you see so many middle-aged men being drawn in."

Interest in the movement, however, has waned dramatically since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which served to give such self-styled patriotism a bad name, Roy adds.

Still, guys like Johnson continue to spread the word. Maybe he should update his message to say that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean your president isn't out to get you.