Over the weekend, a bunch of guys with legally procured guns took over a federal bird sanctuary in the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. They did so as a protest on behalf of two local ranchers, the Hammonds, who are being sent back to prison. The two men had previously been found guilty of committing arson, but even though they were required to serve a mandatory five years in prison, a judge gave them a lesser sentence. Now, after an unusual appeal by the prosecutor, they are being returned to a federal penitentiary to complete their full sentence.
Now, granted the seizure of federal property is nothing to sneeze at; certainly not when the men doing it are armed with high-caliber weapons and have spoken of responding to police efforts to dislodge them with force. Moreover, those involved include the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher locked in a long-standing dispute with federal officials over the use of federal land for cattle grazing. These fights between right-wing Westerners and the federal government are not new, though Bundy took it to a new level last year by bringing in armed civilians to “protect” his ranch — and forcing the federal government to back down. But this is not a rebellion or an insurrection and, in some respects, those involved have a legitimate beef — sending someone who has already served time back to prison is not a normal circumstance and one that, in certain situations, would enrage not just conservatives but liberals.
Yet, it’s been liberals, in the days since the militia seizure, who have been loudly calling for blood — and pointing out alleged double standards. On Twitter, regular comparisons have been made between the response in Oregon and the shootings by police of black youths like 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. One widely retweeted tweet even went so far as to posit a “crazy idea” to “treat armed adult white militia like they’re unarmed black children. Just for one day.”
This is, to put it mildly, an over-reaction and a damaging one at that. If one believes that police should not be using deadly force against children (you can count me in that group), then calling for deadly force to be used against gun-toting whites is just a tad hypocritical.
The Washington Post asked why those in Oregon aren’t being branded terrorists. The answer is actually rather simple: Nothing this group has done looks or sounds like terrorism. No violence has occurred; no one has yet been harmed, and these individuals, as bizarre as it may seem, are legally allowed to possess the guns they have for protection.
The “explainer” site Vox complained that even though there was a Twitter hashtag #Oregonunderattack, The New York Times shrugged at the story by “only” giving it an above-the-fold sidebar.
The liberal news site Think Progress compared the muted response of federal officials to the seizure in Oregon by armed with whites with the more aggressive 1985 standoff between Philadelphia police and the black nationalist group MOVE — as if Waco and Ruby Ridge, in which dozens of white Americans were killed, had never happened.
It’s worth keeping in mind that in Ruby Ridge, an innocent, unarmed woman was shot and killed by an FBI sniper while holding a 10-month-old baby. In Waco, 76 Branch Davidians, including many children, were killed when the FBI sought to resolve that more than seven-week siege. In addition, four ATF agents were killed as well. Those botched raids are no doubt influencing how to handle this situation.
No law enforcement is going to send their officers into harm’s way to resolve this issue; and no liberal should want them to. Just as self-preservation is all too often what leads police to recklessly fire on black teenagers, the desire not to send officers against armed civilians is no doubt a paramount concern. These individuals are in an isolated locale, there are — as far as we know — no innocent civilians present, and they could just as easily be cut off from food and water and forced to depart. Force is and should be a last resort.
But this whole incident — and the reaction to it — is also a worthwhile reminder that the political polarization in American society is increasingly leading to a frenzied inclination to tribalism by both conservatives and liberals. Just as many on the right view the Black Lives Matter movement in harshly negative, occasionally racist terms, the immediate reaction to the incident in Oregon was harshly negative, stereotypical, and contradictory. These two are not the same; and the Black Lives Matter movement rests on stronger ground than ranchers who don’t want to pay grazing fees or adhere to the rule of law.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that not everything is about what you want it to be about; and not every situation can so easily be analogized to your pet cause. We’d all do a little better in checking our biases, before checking Twitter or Facebook to see which side we should take in the crisis du jour.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe.