So perhaps you’ve heard that there are armed individuals occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. You can find some good reporting on the basics. You can also find some of the militia members expressing their concerns in their own words.
What follows is my summary and thoughts.
A Background: The Department of the Interior and the West
The Department of the Interior has endeavored to make a park in Oregon, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. To make this refuge, the DOI bought ranches. Since most ranchers need to use more land than the paltry amount of land that the federal government will sell to them, the federal government was able to use its property rights through the Bureau of Land Management (including grazing fees, water rights, etc.) to grease the wheels in the purchase of the islands of private property surrounded by federal land. Two ranchers who did not want to sell were Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven.
There have been harsh words exchanged between the Hammonds and federal officials with the Fish and WIldlife Service over the years. “Death threats” is how articles tend to characterize the words. I imagine it’s something closer to the way ranchers normally talk when they are angry. But the incident really heated up in 2001 and 2006. The Hammonds set a fire on their land “to stop invasive species,” but it spread to public lands. 137 acres of public lands were burned. (In case you want to know the type of land was burned, take a look at this picture from google street view.) As the tinderbox West takes fire more seriously than the soaked East, there was a trial for arson. They were convicted. The father, responsible for 136 acres burned, was sentenced to a year and a day. The son, responsible for 1 acre burned, was sentenced to 3 months.
However, thanks to the mandatory sentences of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, those sentences were increased to a 5 year mandatory minimum because it is arson of federal property. Due to the length of time it takes to appeal, the two were already out of prison when the federal government won the case. It creates the bizarre spectacle of going back to prison for the same crime.
Many reasonable people were extremely upset by that. It looks like double jeopardy, but because of the difference between being tried and being sentenced, it is technically not double jeopardy. But try and explain that to a rancher, and tell me how it goes.
Enter the Bundys
Hearing about this situation, Ammon Bundy rides up into town. Ammon Bundy is the son of Clive Bundy. In case you forgot, Clive Bundy gained his fame by riding around on a horse with an American Flag on cable news while most of those same outlets glossed over the boring minutia which is the actual BLM policy that caused the incident.
To summarize the Bundy situation, the BLM environmental concerns about endangered species rose in priority while BLM concerns about land use by ranchers lowered in priority. Therefore, the BLM raised grazing fees substantially. Therefore, Bundy refused to pay. Therefore, the Feds sought to round up his cattle on federal lands. Therefore, crowds of armed protesters showed up to keep federal agents from doing so. The crowd succeeded. The cattle are still on federal land, and still no grazing fees have been paid. I kid you not.
According to his own statement, Ammon Bundy went to the Hammonds and shared with them the success that they had in fighting back against the BLM. This led to the Hammonds being open to Ammon Bundy for help of a similar sort. The lawyer for the Hammonds, having half an ounce of competence in his practice, got wind of this and recognized that conspiring to create an armed resistance to federal authority is sedition, punishable by 20 years in a federal prison. The Hammonds have publicly stated, through their lawyer, that they do not, in any way, want to be associated with the Bundys. (Good call, Esquire!)
The next move of the Bundys was done over the holidays. When the federal officials were out on the holidays, they occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with their supporters, gained through social media. They are armed. They are seeking redress of BLM policy against ranchers like themselves and the Hammonds. The Fish and Wildlife Service officers are smart enough to take an extended vacation.
So……Is This Terrorism?
They are armed, they have a federal building, and their demands are the influence of federal policy. That’s terrorism according to 18 U.S.C. § 2331. But keep in mind, the Hammond arson was upped to a mandatory 5 years because of its inclusion in an “Anti-terrorism” statute, which the trial judge said “shocks the conscience.”
Terrorism is a slippery word. Just like “level-1 narcotic.” So, don’t be a hypocrite with your “firm adherence” to the letter of the criminal law.
Plus, according to Title 22 (relating to the State Department and foreign relations), probably not. As 22 U.S.C. 2656(f)-(d) says,
(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism;
So, What Now? My Take.
There are legitimate grievances with BLM policy.
We’ve gotten out of whack with our environmental goals. It is not good to value animal welfare more than people’s livelihoods. It is a sad thing when the idea of endangered species, like the wolf romantically roaming western lands overcomes the actual reality of wolves having free reign over farms and ranches. It is even worse when animal lives are given nearly equal legal protection to human lives. The law should not treat self-defense against a wolf as anything similar to self defense against a person. This is the general idea behind the creation of these wildlife parks, the environmental rules of the “desert tortise” and protecting endangered grass. Yes: grass.
It is crazy to have the “survival of the fittest” in the scientific section of our minds, but the “preservation of the weakest” in the policy arm of our government. It would be better if we saw the ideal state of the wilderness as one that can be enjoyed by measured civilization, not by mass “don’t-touch-it!” preservation. People live in the West. You need to let them actually live. You should especially let them live in the West as they want to live when policymakers in the East have virtually no experience with life and work 2,000 miles away where the rules are enforced. And if you want to know how much centralized authority the Federal government has over localities in the West, see here. It’s absurd.
However, there are even bigger legitimate grievances with armed uprisings.
The last real armed uprising that had general widespread public American approval was the Revolutionary War. Before any shots were fired in any colony, the Intollerable Acts were passed in the parliament. The legislature had been dissolved, the courts were dismantled as trials against crown agents had to be conducted in England (including the witnesses against them), the main engine of commerce had been shut down with the closing of the Port of Boston, and all rule was conducted through an appointed royal governor. Even that was preceded by the Stamp Act, which brought on ten years of massive public resistance, including the still remembered slogan “no taxation without representation.”
To pretend that we’ve reached the point of tyranny which justifies armed resistance, which was previously the dissolution of society by dismantling civil government and commerce, is LUDICROUS. Absolute Bonkers.
Most people do not care about the problems in the West with the BLM because they do not know about them. I bet if a majority knew not only about the policies, but the facts of what it takes to actually run a ranch, then they would probably be very receptive to the idea, from small-government conservatives to (literally) free-range eating hipsters.
However, if a pattern is created where individuals change federal policy through armed resistance, then that idea can spread. And its spread would be terrible. It could spread from western rancher protesters to black lives matter protesters to criminal justice protesters to abortion protesters to anti-war protesters, to whomever. That IS the dissolution of a society, not by the dismantling of civil government, but through its impotence. This can’t be allowed to happen.Period.
It is also notable that individuals (like me) who are sympathetic to the real injustices that bad policy creates will significantly pull back once that resistance becomes associated with armed resistance. Just sayin’.
The last time a militia, excited by previous successes, was moved to armed resistance of the federal government through the idea of the sovereignty of the people, it was the Whiskey Rebellion. It is an apt comparison, because the ranchers still view their country in that mindset of early-American independence. I think that’s a totally fair explanation of their mindset.
But even in that different time and place, the Whiskey Rebellion caused a sitting U.S. President to mount his horse and ride out with a federal army to put it down. The leaders who were found were arrested. Regardless of your opinion on the 1790s tax on Whiskey (and I have none), it was a good call.
It’s probably time to pull a “Washington” and let people know that regardless of your opinion on the Department of the Interior, you don’t occupy federal buildings with an armed group to push your policy goals forward in America.
We don’t do that here. Period.