The current stand-off between armed militia guys and the feds in Oregon has its comical side. While I deplore the tone of this Deadspin article, it’s also pretty funny, and reflects an attitude towards the militia guys that will increasingly become the norm. They’re already late-night fodder; never a good thing. And the militia’s rather desperate call for snacks suggests, at the very least, that someone maybe didn’t think this through very carefully. Still, it’s a dangerous situation, and one that deserves a nuanced appraisal.
Here are the facts, as I understand them. (And, as always, if I get this wrong, let me know). A father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were supposed to report to federal law enforcement yesterday. In 2012, they were convicted of setting fire to federal lands adjacent to their property. Most sources I’ve seen have said that the fire they set was intended to cover up for their having poached deer on that land. (Defenders of the Hammonds dispute that). Anyway, they were convicted, sentenced, and served their time. But appellate courts, reviewing their case, found that they should have received harsher sentences under federal anti-terrorism guidelines. So, on Monday, they were supposed to go back to jail to do more time.
I don’t blame the Hammonds for thinking the whole thing is massively unfair. Granted, the increased sentence has been thoroughly adjudicated, including a Supreme Court endorsement. Still, I’d be ticked if I were them. I don’t really see why this act of arson warrants another five years in prison for a 73-year old.
But now come Cliven Bundy’s boys to complicate things. The militia guys are there because this whole thing ties into one of the more contentious issues in the west, federal land use policies. On the extreme edge of the land use debate, we find Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The two Bundy brothers have joined forces with friends who share their views, and travel around the country injecting themselves into various national controversies regarding federal control of land. So this small group has occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, probably to provide safe haven for the Hammonds (who don’t seem to want it), and also, as Ammon Bundy has said, to create a base where patriots can gather in defiance of the tyrannical federal government.
The United States government controls huge chunks of land in the West, in Oregon, Nevada and Utah, among other western states. The Bureau of Land Management is seen as administering those lands in a high-handed and confrontational manner. Ammon Bundy calls the BLM’s fees for ranchers’ grazing rights unconstitutional. That means, for the militia, this is a question of high principle. The specifics of the Hammonds’ case is getting lost here.
It also appears that the Bundy militia were sort of hoping for a lot more people to join them. Blaine Cooper, a member of the group, went on Facebook and asked for people to send them ‘snacks.’ He suggested that food and other supplies could be mailed to them. They’re hoping, in other words, for supplies to be delivered to them by the federal government’s mail service, to the federal government address they’re currently occupying, in defiance of the federal government. All this suggests that maybe this plan wasn’t all that carefully thought-through.
So how big a deal is this? Honestly, their poor planning reminds me of is John Brown, and Harper’s Ferry. I wouldn’t call the Bundys ‘terrorists.’ But Brown was indeed a terrorist, an ideological fanatic. He took over the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, hoping to inspire a slave insurrection. Again, his forces were few in number, short of supplies, and poorly trained. If slaves didn’t revolt and join him, he had no chance of success whatsoever. And, in fact, his takeover was very short-lived, and the federal forces (under the control of an officer named Robert E. Lee), had little difficulty capturing him.
But what Brown may have really been hoping for did come true; a bloody, ferocious intra-regional conflict. What was the proximate cause of the Civil War? Sure, Fort Sumpter. But that was more symptom than cause; really, war was inevitable once Abraham Lincoln was elected President. And his election became inevitable when the national Democratic convention, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860, couldn’t agree on a candidate, splitting the party. And that result was the inevitable consequence of ‘bloody Kansas,’ the battle over whether ‘the territories’ would be slave or free. And Kansas was bloody, in part, because of a series of murders committed by John Brown against slave owners. John Brown therefore might be remembered as the most spectacularly successful terrorist in history.
Brown was successful, in part, because on one point (and one point only), he was unequivocally right; he believed chattel slavery to be a moral abomination. He was successful because his message was seen as compelling by many Americans, and terrifying by many others. And the war came.
I use him as a parallel because he launched his insurrection so badly ill-prepared, as the Bundys seem to have done. I cite Brown, because his example shows how terrible the consequences of his kind of revolt can be, and because thinking of him in connection to the Bundys scares me to death. And I think that fear may be why some folks on the left have referred to the Bundy militia as ‘terrorists,’ and called for an armed response.
But on sober reconsideration, an armed response to the incidents in Oregon would mark a criminally misguided overreaction. The Bundy militia does not actually pose much of a threat to anyone. They haven’t taken hostages, for example, and haven’t shot anyone. They’re just occupying some buildings in a remote and obscure federal land use facility.
Also, they’re wrong, dead wrong, on every point. No one’s going to rally to their call (oh, a few people might, perhaps), because their call is too kooky to take seriously. Of course the federal government can constitutionally own and administer land. In fact, determining issues of property ownership and control is one of the most essential duties of any government anywhere.
And ranchers are not getting short-changed. In fact, as fivethirtyeight.com recently posted, ranchers are getting a great deal from the BLM. Federal grazing fees are 93 percent lower than the average market rate. The BLM’s fees only cover around fifteen percent of their costs; the rest of the tab is picked up by, well, you and me. Taxpayers.
So the Bundys’ argument is entirely notional, unconnected to any actual reality. It’s a cloud cuckoo land insurrection. They believe that it’s unconstitutional and illegal for the federal government to own land and to charge ranchers to use it, no matter how good a deal ranchers get. That’s frankly a nonsensical argument, and it will increasingly be seen as one as this controversy continues. Their cause is not morally or legally compelling. And they don’t seem to have sufficient supplies to hold out all that long.
Let’s resolve this peaceably. Or, as the LDS Church put it, in an official statement on this matter: “we are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.” Amen. Or, instead of citing Captain Moroni (who wasn’t, let’s face it, bothered by the legal minutiae of land use policies), let’s quote Acts 5, and Gamaliel: “Refrain from these men, and let them alone. If this work be of men, it will come to nought. If it be of God, you cannot overthrow it.” I’m betting on the former.