Thank Government Appeasement of Wingnuts for the Oregon Standoff

Cliven Bundy won his armed showdown with feds when they returned his cattle and didn’t prosecute him. No wonder his son thinks he can score another victory.


Mike Blake/Reuters

There’s a really simple reason why armed men thought they could get beat the federal government in Oregon: They beat Uncle Sam the last time they showed up with guns.

Leading the standoff in Oregon is Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose band of extremists helped him defeat the feds in two years ago.

In 1993, Bundy decided not to renew his permit for cattle grazing in protest of new regulations under the federal Bureau of Land Management, However, Bundy kept grazing his cattle on public lands so that by 2014 Bundy had accrued over $1 million in grazing fees. A judge had first ordered Bundy to remove his cows from public land in 1998 but since Bundy hadn’t done so (after 16 years!) a judge in 2014 said the federal government could remove Bundy’s cows for him.

After the government rounded up Bundy’s cows, the rancher and some supporters showed up armed. Wrapping up his critique of cattle-grazing policies with a larger anti-government agenda, Bundy himself said at the time, “We’re about ready to take the country over with force!” According to local press, Bundy’s supporters were pointing weapons at the police. The assistant sheriff said Bundy’s supporters “were in my face yelling profanities and pointing weapons.”

And what did the government do? They released Bundy’s cattle and left his armed supporters alone.

According to Bundy as of April 2015, he continued to graze his cattle on federal lands without impediment.

“We’re probably living in the freest place in the whole world,” Bundy bragged, adding, “We have not had any time of government interference.”

The BLM is still in court trying to collect overdue grazing fees, plus interest.

But what about filing federal criminal charges for assaulting, resisting or impeding federal officers, which according to CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson is the least of charges that might have been filed? Well, charges were filed against two of Bundy’s supporters: one for being a felon in possession of a firearm and another for unlawfully carrying a weapon at a business that sells alcohol.

That’s it. Talk about being “soft on terrorism.”

Now Ammon Bundy is holed up in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to support Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who were found guilty of arson for starting a fire on their property that spread to public land. After serving time in jail and paying $400,000 in fines, the Hammonds were released. But a federal appeals court found that the judge who sentenced the Hammonds did not obey the law, which mandates a minimum five-year prison term for arson against federal property. (The 1996 law was passed as part of a crackdown on—you guessed it —domestic terrorists.)

Just months after the Bundy Ranch standoff, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report documenting that the “Patriot Movement” was “emboldened” by the Bundy victory. In fact, according to the SPLC report, more armed anti-government threats and demonstrations proliferated. A Utah county commissioner, Phil Lyman, led a protest against the ban of ATVs on federal land. Joined by members of the Bundy family, Lyman threatened, “If things don’t change, it’s not long before shots will be fired.”

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The SPLC estimates the “Patriot Movement” has grown from about 150 groups before Barack Obama was elected president to 1,000 as of when the Bundy confrontation happened. SPLC also identifies 276 militia groups, up 37 percent since 2014.

"The number represents a renewal of growth after several years of declines," SPLC said in a statement Monday. "The movement grew explosively after President Obama was elected, from 42 groups in 2008 to a peak of 334 in 2011 before declining in recent years."

What’s even more disturbing, perhaps, is that nothing has changed in terms of the federal government’s hyper-passive response to such flagrant acts of menacing and threats of domestic terrorism.

The Department of Justice did, wisely, revive the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee—recognizing the need to defend against and prevent the very real and comparable threat posed, for instance, by mostly white anti-government zealots and not just Muslim radicals. Yet the FBI said it was seeking a “peaceful” end to the standoff, and there are reportedly no signs of law enforcement being anywhere near the building. So maybe it’s not even a “standoff” if the federal government is standing down.

Of course there’s a strategic case to be made for a cautious approach on the part of the federal government that doesn’t escalate violence nor feed a cult of martyrdom within the anti-government extremist movement as happened after Ruby Ridge and Waco. That would seem jarring enough juxtaposed with the violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims. But in the face of the very direct connection between the Bundy conflict and the Oregon standoff, and the SPLC’s evidence that the government’s non-response simply gave anti-government extremists more power, the government now seems naïve about right-wing extremism at best and encouraging at worst.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said the Ruby Ridge was in Waco, Texas. We regret the error.