A number of militia men and ranchers are now occupying a remote federal building, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Their objective in taking this building — without actual bloodshed, I might add — is not exactly clear. They have merely declared their intention to occupy the building, possibly for years, and for it to become a rallying point for patriots who want to protest the federal government.
Joined by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven Bundy, the radical rancher you may remember from 2014, these armed protesters split from a larger group of more peaceable ranchers who objected to harsh sentences handed to cattlemen Dwight and Steven Hammond by the federal government. Their crime? Starting fires on their own property that spread to federal lands. A judge had handed them shorter sentences in 2012, but those were overturned in favor of the mandatory minimum of five years. The Hammonds have a history of conflict with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Upon seeing the militia protest our commentariat has offered two reactions: Laugh or repent.
The laugh camp is well represented by Alberto Burneko who rightly points out that if these militia men had wanted a real dramatic fight with tyranny, they would have tried to occupy almost any other building in North America. The repent camp finds a manful voice in Charles P. Pierce who laments "the essential compact of the United States of America has come apart," and implies that this Oregonian movement of "armed sedition" is the fault of Ronald Reagan.
A few things should be said.
First, a dramatic, gun-blazing conflagration is possible but unlikely. The federal government will try avoid the mistakes of the 1990s confrontations with the Branch Davidians and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge. There is also a very real possibility that for reasons of depleted morale or even depleted rations, the occupation of the Malheur building simply can't be sustained. The Hammonds seem to have no interest in this armed protest movement on their behalf. The Bundys who have put themselves out in front of this protest may seem, even to potential allies, more like grifters than generals.
Secondly, the protesters absolutely have a point that the mandatory minimum sentencing of the Hammonds was overly-harsh. Perhaps more provocative than the harsh sentencing was the fact that the law under which the Hammonds were prosecuted was "the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996." It is provocative to use an anti-terrorism law to punish those whose defensive fire swept out of control.
Lastly, the issue of land control really is a problem that needs addressing. The federal government owns incredible acreage in the West. Many ranchers have freely grazed their cattle on it for generations, either with the federal government's implied blessing or because of a complete lack of enforcement. Over the past few decades the accepted conventions around cattle grazing and the federal code governing it have come into disharmony. Ammon Bundy's complaints about the government taking away land from the people whose way of life depends on it is really about the government's attempt to enforce federal code over previously understood conventions. If the disagreement sounds personal, that's because it is: All the high-flown rhetoric about tyranny and freedom barely disguises the grudge between ranchers and the feds. The government needs to find and enforce a new, durable settlement over these vast tracts of land and end the ongoing feud it's been drawn into.
The standoff in Oregon seems silly and serious at the same time for a good reason. The location of this occupation is absurd, and it can hardly handle the weight of rhetoric about tyranny and freedom that is being attached to it. But the protesters do have a point.