In the Middle of Nowhere

The weekend’s big news came out of nowhere, or from a place in the middle of nowhere:

A peaceful protest Saturday in support of an eastern Oregon ranching family facing jail time for arson was followed shortly afterward by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge.

Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights, told The Oregonian he and two of his brothers were among a group of dozens of people occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The Oregonian write-up is here – the closest town is Burns – the county seat, but fewer than three thousand people actually live there. Now, however, the place will be famous:

Ammon Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely.

“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy said. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”

Bundy then posted a video on his Facebook page asking for true patriots to come help him, and come prepared. That might have meant armed, but no one quite knew:

An Idaho militia leader who helped organize the earlier march said he knew nothing about activities after a parade of militia members and local residents in Burns walked past the sheriff’s office and the home of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.

Beth Anne Steele, an FBI spokeswoman in Portland, told The Associated Press the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge. She made no further comment.

Some local residents feared the Saturday rally would involve more than speeches, flags and marching.

And the dispute is this:

Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Jan. 4 as ordered by the judge. Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, said they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.

The two were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time – the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.

The decision has generated controversy in a remote part of the state. In particular, the Hammonds’ new sentences touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate federal authority. Ammon Bundy and a handful of militiamen from other states arrived last month in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.

This is all about how there is no such thing as federal authority – again. Ammon Bundy’s father, eighteen months earlier, facing massive fines and the confiscation of his cattle herds for years of refusing to pay federal grazing fees – he had them out there in federal land and there is a set fee for that – assembled a small army of heavily armed “patriotic” militiamen and promised to shoot dead any federal representative who showed up. His positon was that there was no such thing as “federal land” – the states were each sovereign nations and he’d listen to his state government, maybe, but he really only recognized the local sheriff as a legitimate governmental authority. He then became an immediate hero on Fox News and the usual cast of characters jumped in.

Jack Jenkins reminds us of that – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson loved the whole thing, and there was Donald Trump:

While appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in April 2014, Trump expressed sympathy for Bundy, saying, “I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk and the people that are so loyal… I respect him.”

Trump stopped short of uniformly endorsing Bundy’s resistance to the government, however, noting, “You do have laws in the country and you know, if everybody did what he’s doing, where does it all go?” Instead, Trump saw the protest as an opportunity for the rancher to “cut a deal” with the government.

“He’s in a great position to cut a great deal and I think that’s what he should do,” he said.

Bundy is now a Trump supporter – but he also could have supported Mike Huckabee:

Huckabee addressed the Bundy standoff while speaking at the conservative Freedom Summit in April 2014. He insisted that he didn’t want address Bundy’s specific grievances about land usage, explaining, “I’m not here to jump in to the middle of whether Cliven Bundy ought to pay the state or pay anybody for the chance for his cows to eat some grass.”

But Huckabee did criticize the federal government taking action to enforce the law.

“There is something wrong when a government believes that some blades of grass that a cow is eating is so… an egregious affront to the government of the United States that we would literally put a gun in a citizen’s face and threaten to shoot him over it,” Huckabee said, drawing applause from the crowd.

That wasn’t exactly the case. The feds wanted their fees, with late-payment penalties. Bundy brought in all the guys with guns and dared the feds to just try to get their fees, and the feds kind of gave up. This wasn’t worth a pitched battle and lots of people dying. Jenkins also notes that Jeb Bush said Bundy was breaking the law and the law ought to be enforced, and Marco Rubio said so too:

Rubio staunchly opposed Bundy’s refusal to comply with the federal government, rebuking his rejection of the rule of law while speaking to Las Vegas Now in October.

“We’re a nation of laws,” Rubio said. “No matter how worthy your cause may be, you cannot violate the law. If you don’t like the laws, we have a republic where you can change them, and in this instance, I’m not even sure what the change would be.”

“This idea that you can just violate the law with impunity is not something I support. If we stop becoming a nation of laws – whether it’s on immigration or the use of lands – you begin to disintegrate as a republic and it undermines our whole system.” he added.

And where do Jeb and Marco stand with the Republican Party now? They’re an afterthought to Trump and Cruz, but the Los Angeles Times reports the issue is still hot:

A group of armed activists who have seized control of part of a federal wildlife refuge in southern Oregon appear to be aiming “to overthrow the county and federal government,” a local law enforcement official said Sunday.

Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said authorities from “several organizations” are working to peacefully resolve the standoff, which began Saturday when an unknown number of armed activists occupied an uninhabited building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles outside the town of Burns, Ore.

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” Ward said in a statement Sunday.

That may be what this is about:

One of the protesters just at the entrance to the refuge, Jon Ritzheimer of Phoenix, said the activists were not blocking access to the facility and were breaking no laws. …

He warned law enforcement officials against creating “another Ruby Ridge,” a reference to a deadly 1992 siege in northern Idaho between the FBI and backwoods cabin dweller Randy Weaver.

“We will not fire unless fired upon, but we will stand and defend the Constitution,” Ritzheimer said. “Yes, there are some people that are armed. We need to defend our rights. That’s what the 2nd Amendment is there for, people.”

Ward said police are asking residents to avoid the refuge “for their safety.”

That sounds serious, and the Washington Post’s Janell Ross notes the difficulty here:

As of Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post called them “occupiers.” The New York Times opted for “armed activists” and “militia men.” And the Associated Press put the situation this way: “A family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and is asking militia members to join them.”

Not one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation – and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die – the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.

She sees things this way:

It is hard to imagine that none of the words mentioned above – particularly “insurrection” or “revolt” – would be avoided if, for instance, a group of armed black Americans took possession of a federal or state courthouse to protest the police. Black Americans outraged about the death of a 12-year-old boy at the hands of police or concerned about the absence of a conviction in the George Zimmerman case have been frequently and inaccurately lumped in with criminals and looters, described as “thugs,” or marauding wolf packs where drugs are “obviously” in use.

That was said – but one might consider this:

If a group of armed Muslims took possession of a federal building or even its lobby to protest calls to surveil the entire group, it’s even more doubtful they could avoid harsher, more-alarming labels.

In fairness to those assembled in Oregon, it is true that there have been no reports of actual violence, injury or anyone being held inside the Oregon building against their will. 

And in the interim, some may feel particularly inclined to take real care with the language used to describe the situation so as not to inflame it or offend people who, in some cases, have already been troubled by the decision to charge a father and son pair of ranchers with arson under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The charge not only carries what many of the rancher’s supporters believe to be an unjust five-year jail term but; it brings the very same t-word into the mix.

She understands that, but that doesn’t help matters:

One really cannot help but wonder where similar outrage lives when, in the face of clear data indicating that black Americans are far more likely than white ones to face serious charges and jail time rather than misdemeanor penalties for resisting arrest. Where has the lock-step adherence to careful and delicate language been in all of 2015 when unarmed black Americans were disproportionately more likely to be killed by police than others?

Beyond that seeming incongruity, the Hammonds are not among the occupiers.

Something odd is going on here:

White Americans, their activities and ideas seem always to stem from a font of principled and committed individuals. As such, group suspicion and presumed guilt are readily perceived and described as unjust, unreasonable and unethical.

You will note that while the group gathered in Oregon is almost assuredly all or nearly all white, that has scarcely been mentioned in any story. You will note that nothing even close to similar can be said about coverage of events in Missouri, Maryland, Illinois or any other place where questions about policing have given way to protests or actual riots.

You will note the extended debate about whether admitted Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s apparently racially motivated shooting spree was an act of terrorism or even violent racism and the comparatively rapid way that more than one news organization began hinting at and then using terms such as Islamic extremism to describe the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

The sometimes-coded but increasingly overt ways that some Americans are presumed guilty and violence-prone while others are assumed to be principled and peaceable unless and until provoked – even when actually armed – is remarkable.

But maybe that isn’t remarkable in this case. There’s history to consider. The usual response from small-government conservatives is that government at the state level is about right. If the folks in one state want to say slavery is okay, and the folks in another state want to say it isn’t, let each state decide. We had a civil war over that, involving more than slavery, perhaps, as tariffs and other matters were in dispute too.

The Union won that war and the Confederacy lost, and those names weren’t just convenient shorthand. The United States was first organized with the 1777 Articles of Confederation – establishing what was little more than a trade federation of thirteen sovereign nations, the former thirteen colonies, pledged to mutual defense, and not much more. The new federal government, such as it was, couldn’t raise taxes to fund its operations – each state could tax their own people as they saw fit and send the new federal government whatever spare revenue they wished, but that was entirely voluntary. That arrangement drove George Washington crazy – he was always bitching that he never had the proper funds to feed and clothe and equip the army he was given to defeat the British, because no one was chipping in, because they didn’t really have to, if they didn’t feel like it. That was one of many problems discussed for years, and on March 4, 1789, the Articles were replaced by a federal government under the new Constitution – establishing a stronger federal government with a chief executive – the president – and courts, which dealt with laws that applied to everyone in all states, and with actual taxing powers. A little over seventy years later, the aptly-named Confederacy, was still pissed off about that, and went to war almost as if to force America to go back to the original arrangement. Lincoln would have none of that and prevailed. The Union Armies maintained the Union, and as many in the South will still tell you, stripped them of their freedom.

State-level freedom just didn’t work out well, but what about true freedom? Those who believe in that say they are sovereign citizens – and they might be the ultimate small-government Republicans, taking Reagan’s mantra to its logical conclusion. If big government is bad, well, really, all government is bad. No one should tell free men what to do and what not to do, so they answer to no one. They obey no laws. They’re totally free, except a good number of them are in jail – they don’t pay taxes or even stop at stop signs.

Everyone else thinks we have laws for a reason. Laws make life a bit easier for everyone, even if they do limit your freedom to drive as fast as you want and own slaves or whatever your thing is – and laws against this or that, and others requiring that you do something are other, have been worked out by the people, collectively.

That still bothers those call themselves “patriots.” True patriots hate almost everything their government does, because government, in and of itself, restricts our basic freedoms, and the odd thing is that is quite true. Governments, even those of the people and by the people and for the people, as Lincoln put it, do create laws. You can’t own slaves anymore. You can’t shoot anyone who vaguely irritates you, except in Florida. You have to wear a seat belt and so on, because governments exist to set boundaries for acceptable behavior, in our system by mutual agreement when we can work that out, and then they make you pay a big chunk of your income to fund the mechanisms used to enforce those behaviors. Everyone has to chip in, and if you love freedom, that’s a problem. If you love freedom you want to edge your government, which, as a patriot, you oddly say you also love, closer and closer to anarchy, but not quite there, and that’s when the correlation between freedom and patriotism breaks down. The one does not cause the other – and that means that rancher who refused to pay the fees for grazing rights on federal lands, and had inspired Fox News and every militia group on America to call him a true patriot, isn’t one. He just loves freedom. That’s a different thing.

So none of this is about race, or it wasn’t until Cliven Bundy said this:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids – and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch – they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.”

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children; they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

All the Republicans then turned on Bundy, and at the time Paul Waldman wrote this:

Is anyone surprised that Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has become a Fox News hero because of his stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management, turns out to be a stone-cold racist? Not the kind where we might disagree about whether he’s actually a racist, but a lazy-blacks-had-it-better-when-they-were-slaves kind of racist. Conservatives may be wondering how they keep falling in with these kind of people.

That’s a mystery and they should have known better, and some did know better:

It should be said that smart conservatives knew from the beginning that Bundy’s cause was not one they ought to be embracing, and many kept their distance. The fundamental fact of the case is that Bundy was stealing from the federal government. Whether you think the government shouldn’t own so much land in Nevada, or whether you think grazing fees are unfair, you can’t just decide, as Bundy did, that you’ll send your cattle on to government land to graze, and then refuse to pay the fees. That’s what Bundy has been doing for a couple of decades, because, as he said in another interview, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

And here we are again. The son continues his father’s work, but what should be done about these people? There’s David Atkins:

As with ISIS, the Bundy clowns are actively seeking a confrontation with the big bad wolf of Big Western Government. They believe that an active confrontation will spark a movement that will lead to the overthrow of Big Brother. So far, especially after the incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, American leaders have been disinclined to give those opportunities to the domestic militiaman terrorists. Cliven Bundy and his miscreants got away with a wide range of crimes due to the forbearance of federal officials.

But the problem with taking that hands-off approach is that the treatment of left-leaning protesters is far different. Occupiers and Black Lives Matter protesters aren’t met with hand wringing and gentle admonishments. They’re met with batons and tear gas… So on the one hand it’s understandable that federal officials would not want to make martyrs of the right-wing domestic terrorists who are actively seeking to engage in a confrontation and make themselves appear to be downtrodden victims of the federal beast. But on the other hand, it’s infuriating that they receive special kid glove treatment that would not be afforded to minority and liberal activists.

I feel that if Bundy’s little crew wants to occupy a federal building and assert that they’ll use deadly violence against any police who try to extract them, then they should get what they’re asking for just as surely Islamist terrorists would if they did likewise. As much as restraint is the better part of valor when dealing with entitled conservative crazies, principles of basic justice and fair play also need to apply. What’s good for one type of terrorist must also be good for another.

And there’s Mark Kleiman:

It’s crucial to avoid a shoot-out, but it’s equally crucial to assert the rule of law. There’s no need here to repeat the back-down in Nevada, and the ringleaders need to go away for long, long time.

It’s also crucial that Republican politicians – most importantly, the Presidential candidates – be forced to take a stand for or against acts of lawless violence. And that’s not something the President can or should try to manage alone. Everyone needs to speak out, and keep speaking out.

And there’s Kevin Drum:

I understand the gut satisfaction of fantasizing about a Bonnie & Clyde style shootout that leaves the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge soaked in terrorist blood, but that’s really not what any of us should want. These guys aren’t terrorists, anyway. They’re just as misguided as real terrorists, but they haven’t taken anyone hostage or threatened to blow up an airplane. They’re just morons with guns. We can wait them out, or fill the place with tear gas, or play loud music all night like we did with Manual Noriega. I don’t know. I’ll leave the tactics up to professionals.

In any case, I don’t really want to kill these guys, and I don’t think their movement needs martyrs anyway. Just let them rot quietly away for a while until they finally come slinking out of their hole into the hands of federal officials. Then they can be put on trial. By that time, they’ll just seem like a bunch of pitiful loons, and their “movement” will be dead. That’s all I care about. No need to give them more publicity than they’ve already gotten.

But, yes, I would like to hear all the Republican presidential candidates denounce them in no uncertain terms. That shouldn’t be so hard, should it?

That shouldn’t be hard, but it is hard. Take up the Reagan mantra that big government is always the problem and never the solution, because the private sector, driven wholly by profit-motive in an unregulated unforgiving free market, will always come up with the best thing at the least cost, and you’ll be against big government – against the federal government, not the states, or maybe all government. Talk about real freedom, freedom from useless Washington bureaucrats, who knew nothing about how things work in the real world, and you end up on the side of these folks, arguing there should be no such thing as federal land, that the federal government has no constitutional authority to own land, that perhaps even the national parks are essentially illegal. In arguments about “real” freedom one thing leads to another – to guys with guns and anarchy perhaps, but that’s freedom too, isn’t it? We’re unlikely to hear any of the Republican presidential candidates denounce any of this. They’ve backed themselves into a corner. Luckily, this time, it’s a corner in the middle of nowhere. Let them stay there.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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