Friday, January 15, 2016

Not Racism, Or At Least Not Entirely: Why the Malheur Occupiers are Still Alive

I will go into more depth here, but I will summarize why the Federal forces are taking a kid gloves approach to the the militants who are currently occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and I will do it with an image.
This little girl was Baylee Almon.  She was one year and one day old when this picture was taken in 1995.  She didn't get any more days.

That image is of Baylee Almon in the arms of a firefighter who pulled her from the wreckage of the Oklahoma City Federal building after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, other than 9/11.  That bombing attack, which killed 168 people (19 of whom were under the age of 6) and injured 680 others, was carried out in retaliation for the violent responses to anti-government militants earlier in the 1990's.
The Oklahoma City Bombing

Is the reluctance of the FBI to start slaughtering occupiers due to racism?  I would argue no, it is due to the very high body counts that have historically resulted from violent suppression of anti-government extremists, and the high chance of retaliatory terrorism.

The extreme-right brand of anti-government militancy is closely tied to extreme religious conservatism as well.  Despite our society's fixation on Islamic terrorism, it is actually Christian terrorism that historically was responsible for more deaths in the US.  One need merely look at the ongoing incidents of Anti-Abortion Violence for examples.  Murder, abductions, arson, bombings, and ramming buildings with cars are all actions that continue to occur.  Just a month and a half ago three people were killed in a shooting attack on a Planned Parenthood.

This is not to say that the Bundy Militants are abortion clinic bombers, but they are a part of a broader cultural segment that views the use of violence and threats to force their views on others as acceptable.  Of course, one could argue that the people arguing that the government should go in and kill all the occupiers are doing the same.  And I would argue that there is a great degree of truth to that, but there is a difference.  One side is arguing that only non-governmental groups and individuals have the right to kill and seize through force of arms in pursuit of political goals, and the other side argues that only governmental groups and individuals have the right to kill and seize through force of arms in pursuit of political goals.  Both sides are essentially arguing that people who disagree with them should be killed or at least threatened with violence, the disagreement is just on who is allowed to kill and threaten people.

Back in the early 1990's the Federal government clearly acted on the assumption that violent suppression of anti-government groups was the way to go.  This led first to the Ruby Ridge standoff.  A violent and deadly episode that resulted in acquittal for the people who were charged, but not before an agent, a dog, and a boy were killed.  There was a wrongful death suit that followed as well.

The End of the Waco Seige

The next year another anti-government/religious group got into a dispute with the Federal government.  This time it was the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas.  In this case, the Branch Davidians were suspected of stockpiling weapons... in a state where it was not a crime to stockpile weapons.  The end result was 82 dead Branch Davidians (76 in the fiery end, 5 in a shootout, and one other killed by agents) and 4 dead agents.  A large number of the dead in this case were also children.

The Oklahoma City Bombing was in 1995.  The massive scale of that violence shook the nation.

The next year, 1996, when Federal forces again had a confrontation with anti-government/religious extremists things went a little differently.  This time it was the Montana Freemen.  The standoff was resolved peacefully.  After 5 agent deaths and scores of anti-government types dead in two years the Federal government had decided that perhaps using a softer approach might be more effective.  A long period of relative peace between anti-government types and the government ensued for almost 20 years.

Enter the Bundys.

In 2014, 20 years of law-breaking on the part of Cliven Bundy resulted in the government trying to get him to stop illegally grazing his cattle on Federally owned land.  This led to a standoff between armed anti-government/Christian forces and Federal agents.  Including snipers aiming their weapons at agents.  The Feds backed down, and the Bundys kept breaking the law.  They are still using those federal lands without a permit.

(As an aside, under the land laws that apply most everywhere in the English speaking world, if anyone other than the government owned the land Cliven Bundy is using, at this point he would have a very strong adverse possession case, particularly after facing down the government.  The Bundys and their philosophical kin make frequent appeals to common law, and under common law the fact that the Feds backed down fully legitimized their flouting of federal regulations, as well as giving them possession of the land they have been unlawfully using.)

Part of the problem is that the roots of the anti-government/Christian movement go back a long way in our country's history.  How long you ask?  How about 1791?

In 1791, three years after the ratification of the US Constitution, Western Ranchers Farmers rose up against the federal government in opposition to what they saw as unconstitutional abuse of power in the form of taxing whiskey.  This was called the Whiskey Rebellion.  And from that point on the US government was pretty consistent in using lethal force to suppress acts of open rebellion.

When John Brown seized the Harpers Ferry Armory the Feds brought the hammer.  This raid helped trigger the US Civil War (itself often cast by supporters of the Confederacy as a dispute over Federal Government power), and most people today side with John Brown as an abolitionist, but we should not lose sight of the fact that John Brown was a religiously motivated extremist with a history of terroristic actions and violence in support of his abolitionist cause.  And while John Brown may have been on the anti-slavery side of the debate, it is worth considering what he was trying to do.  He was trying to start a conflict to end slavery.  He was successful.  Not directly, but as a martyr.

As a martyr John Brown's cause gained strength.  A martyr cannot be discredited.  The ideas that a martyr stands for are bulletproof.  The violent response by the government helped bring about the Civil War.

And that, I think, is part of the mindset that motivated the Bundys.  They see themselves as Godly and moral men fighting for a just cause, and if they are martyred they could trigger violence that could convulse our nation.

The Bundys are the inheritors of a cultural mindset that celebrates the Christian individual, and reviles the rule of law.  This mindset extends to the American Revolution, and after the failures of the Articles of Confederation, it was only three years after the United States became a country that armed conflict resulted from this mindset.  Even the concept of Manifest Destiny, that led to the current territorial extent of the Lower 48 states was tied to a Christian ideology that legitimized the use of force to drive people (Indians) from their homes.  And this anti-government/Christian ideology is on full display in the Republican Presidential nomination race.

(If you want yet another example, take a look at the Bath School Disaster.  The deadliest school massacre in US history was not committed with a gun, it was a bomb set off by a man angry about taxes.  Children often pay the price of this kind of violence.)

The Bundys may be threatening bullies and criminals, but there are a LOT of people in this country that agree with them.  And when the federal government has come down hard on people who stood for movements that had a lot of support it has led to a lot of blood.

After the blood and reprisals of the early 1990's the US government adopted a set of tactics that sought to impose the rule of law, and imprisonment on anti-government militants.  By imprisoning the Freemen they were rendered powerless.  They were not martyrs, they were criminals.  As long as this strategy kept working things didn't get as bloody as they had been,

But then in 2014, the kid gloves approach didn't result in the restoration of the rule of law.  It resulted in the victory of the Bundys, at gunpoint.  The Bundys threatened the US government with violence and the US government backed down.

The Bundys were empowered.

On January 2nd the Bundy opposition to the rule of law took a scary new turn.  After hijacking the cause of a real injustice (the Hammonds), the Bundys seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge station.  Now they are stealing and damaging federal property.  They are tearing down fences.  They are making roads across wildlife habitat and archaeological sites.  They are poaching.  Beyond the simple illegal occupation of the site (and of course promoting armed insurrection) there is no shortage of laws the Bundys are breaking now.

Just a small helping of destruction of Federal property...

While the Bundys may claim to be peaceful, they are armed, and if we are being honest, most of the militants at the refuge probably get a lot more range time in than your average law enforcement personnel (despite what you may have seen in movies, guns are not magic, they require practice to use well, and having a badge doesn't make someone a crack shot).  If we were talking about the Bundys standing up to the US Army this wouldn't matter.  With a couple thousand dollars expended in transportation and material costs an artillery strike could end the occupation without any need for soldiers to put themselves at risk.

But that is not what we are talking about.

The Feds want to resolve this by restoring the rule of law.  If the Feds kill all the militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge they will create martyrs.  Martyrs that have a lot of people who agree with them.  And that kind of bloodbath has historically resulted in more bloodbaths.  And more violence  And terrorism (the real kind).

Because while many may see the Bundys as a joke, they see themselves as true patriots fighting in the name of God, justice, and the American Way.  And a lot of people agree with them.
If the Feds can resolve this by arresting and jailing the Bundys and their compatriots, there is a real chance to defuse this dangerous escalation before it turns into the kind of blood we saw two decades ago.

So yeah, maybe the fact that the Bundys are white has something to do with why the government didn't go in guns blazing, but I don't think it is because the Feds are racists.  I think it is because the whiteness of the Bundys helps convince a lot of people that they are right, and that large number of people that support them makes killing the Bundys a very VERY bad idea.

The Bundys want to start a war.  They are opposed to the rule of law, science, Native land claims, protection of the environment, and any authority beyond themselves.  A violent response to their provocations brings the probability of more violence closer.  We should not be feeding into the type of rhetoric that feeds this kind of violent anger.

If there is any constant theme in my writing it is about the danger of divisive politics and rhetoric.  This is a prime example.  The Bundys are bullies and criminals, but when you ridicule them, or call for their killing, or claim that their continued existence is proof of racism, you contribute to the factionalization of our country.  Our history is replete with cautionary examples of what this kind of divisiveness leads to.

Please stop calling for the killing of the Bundys, and start hoping for the peaceful restoration of the rule of law.

Malheur is a breathtaking place.  It is one of the most important habitats in the West for migratory waterfowl.  If you ever get the chance, make the trip.


  1. I personally can't muster much sympathy for their "cause " at least as reported . Seems to be more an opportunistic "land grab " than actual rights of the individual issue. Not exactly a "Ruby Ridge " as I remember it !

    I've often considered that terms like terrorist vs freedom fighter seem mostly a matter of perspective and historical/cultural bias .

    And , like it or not , such groups seem to have a disproportionate influence through out history .

    1. I think the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is almost entirely a matter of perspective.

      The most glaring example I can think of from our perspective is Osama Bin Laden. Millions of people around the world viewed him as a Robin Hood type of character sticking it to the big US ogre. Obviously, from our perspective the man was unarguably a mass murdering terrorist.

      But then again, Robin Hood (if he actually existed) was surely seen as a terrorist by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

      All that said though, I try as much as possible to use the term terrorism to refer to deadly violence employed for political effect y a non-state actor. Obviously, this means that it is easy to call violence in support of a failed revolution terrorism, rather than freedom fighting, but it seems like a broadly acceptable definition.

  2. Jon, you must be an A.M. person whereas I'm a creature of darkness , at least so far as deep thinking and blogging go .

    Yes, "sovereign " entities recognized by other "states" get to define what violent action is OK and when . And of course "states" may also engage in covert violence so long as it stays "black" . They can also use "private contractors " or other foreign states to do their dirty work . But thank God that NOT "terrorism " by definition !

  3. The high comedy Mel Brooks "Blazing Saddles " style conclusion : the last hold out holds himself hostage at gunpoint and demands maryjane and pizza before surrender . You just can't make this sheet up!!!!