In a blunt exchange that hit on a major American divide, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, stood by his comments that militia groups involved in a ranch standoff are “domestic terrorists,” while the state’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, replied that he considers them “patriots.”…

“600 people came armed, they had practiced, they had maneuvered… they set up snipers in strategic locations… they had automatic weapon,” the leading Democrat said Friday. “And they boasted about the fact they put women and children… so they would get hit first.”

“If there were ever an example of people who were domestic violent terrorist wannabes, these are the guys,” Reid concluded.

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This phony event has brought out the worst of the gun-waving far right, and the national politicians who are barely one degree of separation from them. Hundreds of heavily armed, camouflaged supporters of the scofflaw turned out Saturday in Nevada, training their rifles on public employees who were trying to do their job. The outsiders looked like snipers ready to shoot the police. If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?…

At the center of the dispute is the 68-year-old rancher Bundy, who said in a radio interview, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” A real patriot, this guy. You would think that kind of anarchist would draw a raised eyebrow from the Tea Party establishment that provides Bundy his media oxygen. After all, wasn’t the Tea Party born in a rant by Rick Santelli of CNBC about deadbeat homeowners? He complained about taxpayers’ subsidizing “losers’ mortgages” and he said we should “reward people that can carry the water instead of drinking the water.” Believe me, Bundy’s cattle are drinking an awful lot of our water, and not paying for it…

No, the renegade rancher has no more right to 96,000 acres of Nevada public range than a hot dog vendor has to perpetual space on the Mall. Both places belong to the American people. Bundy runs his cattle on our land — that is, turf owned by every citizen.

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First, this entire incident speaks to the continued power of right-wing mythology. For many of the protesters, this isn’t about a rogue rancher as much as it’s a stand against “tyranny” personified in Barack Obama and his administration.

Second, it won’t happen, but right-wing media ought to be condemned for their role in fanning the flames of this standoff. After years of decrying Obama’s “lawlessness” and hyperventilating over faux scandals, it’s galling to watch conservatives applaud actual lawbreaking and violent threats to federal officials.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder how conservatives would react if these were black farmers—or black anyone—defending “their” land against federal officials. Would Fox News applaud black militiamen aiming their guns at white bureaucrats?

Somehow, given the degree to which right-wing media traffic in racial paranoia, I think we’d be looking at a different situation if the Bundy Ranch belonged to a bunch of black people. And as someone who closely follows the regular incidents of lethal police violence against blacks and Latinos, I also wonder whether law enforcement would be as tepid against a group of armed African-Americans. Judging from past events, I’m not so sure.

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The great irony here, or perhaps manipulation, is that while Bundy has wrapped his range war in the flag of states-rights and the sanctity of county and federal governments, his twenty-year stint as a freeloading trespasser has trampled county and state laws and policies just as thoroughly as federal laws. His refusal to recognize federal lands, for example, is in direct contradiction with the Nevada State Constitution.

His old grazing permit was eventually purchased by Clark County which used its grazing-free status as legally required mitigation to offset habitat destruction elsewhere in the county. Bundy’s trespass cattle violate the county’s policy. His zone of trespass moreover, has expanded over the years to include National Park Service and state lands, including the latter’s Overton Wildlife Manage Area. One of his bulls attacked a state ranger in the Overton Wildlife area while illegally trespassing there.

His cattle have also trespassed on and damaged golf courses, private gardens and community gardens.

Patriotism is indeed the last recourse to which a scoundrel clings. Bundy’s local patriotism seems to end as soon as state and county public interests get in the way of his business interests.

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The story reminded me of John Dickinson, a lesser-known Founding Father who opposed going to war with Great Britain. He feared the colonists had no chance and would foolishly expose themselves to slaughter. But when the Declaration of Independence was signed, writes Wilfred M. McClay, Dickinson accepted the decision and immediately joined the Continental Army, “making him one of the few among the Founders to do so. His devotion to the Patriot cause was total, and it proved stronger than his personal pride.”

The problem with Bundy’s stance is that he has no higher end in this fight than his own interests. Though it’s true that the federal government’s takeover of Nevada land is decidedly frustrating to many, there are other methods of protest—less flashy and attention grabbing, perhaps, but methods which appeal to both parties and grasp the importance of compromise and persuasion. But Bundy is not interested in such methods. Rather than using the avenues and pathways presented to him, Bundy has staunchly declared his own law and allegiances.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work this way. If only it did—we could rebel for paying stupid taxes, refuse to ever attend jury duty, sell whatever we want on the streets without a license. Maybe our world would be better for it—or maybe it would become chaotic and anarchical, characterized by a tyrannical majority that insists on whatever it wills for its own good.

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This story really caught fire with lots of deeply emotional people on both sides of a rough “state vs. citizens” rift in American consciousness. This is even though the specifics of the story don’t resonate with that many people’s lives—few of us are ranchers or have armed government agencies literally stealing the instruments of our livelihood. On the other side, few of us feel that the order and safety or our lives are seriously threatened by recalcitrant ranchers or “militia members.”…

It can be tricky, because the type of person who lets conflicts with the state get this far is apt to be, temperamentally, the type to do and say lots of things even a normally sympathetic person in principle might want to shy away from. Similarly, one need not believe in Bundy’s eccentric political science vision of where legitimate American authority lies—to him, counties and states, not the federal government—to feel he’s been ill-treated by the feds.

Very deep questions of duties to obey and the source of private property underlie this conflict. (And slightly less but still deep questions about federal land ownership and management vs. the prerogatives of states, counties, and citizens.) Let’s just say I’d never seen so many people who do not consider themselves rock-ribbed conservatives rising up indignantly to defend the unquestionable value of and need to obey absentee land ownership based on the ukase of the powerful and faraway over the rights of indigenous people to work the lands before this case.

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Of course, when it comes to fleecing the federal government, ranchers have nothing on oil and gas companies. Remarkably, BLM’s 12.5% royalty rate for extracting oil and gas on land (as opposed to offshore) hasn’t changed since the 1920s. It is well below state rates in Wyoming (16.7%), New Mexico (18.8%) and Texas (25%). According to a 2007 GAO report, the U.S. receives “one of the lowest government takes in the world” from oil and gas extraction.

It’s much the same with BLM’s coal-leasing program. A 2012 report by the Interior department’s inspector general concluded that BLM was accepting lease bids below full market value.

But why beat up on BLM? The government’s failure to extract fair value extends well beyond the Interior department…

Cliven Bundy would understand. The federal government does not trample in jackboots those with whom it does business. It wraps them in cotton batting and, when they express ingratitude, apologizes profusely. No wonder these clients act like spoiled children. Nobody ever taught them to behave differently.

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The irony here is that the ones doing the prosecuting are the ones who should be prosecuted. It is against the law to use IRS resources for political vendettas and to maliciously prosecute citizens to further partisan political interests. Those are serious crimes — serious because they pervert the fundamental relationship between citizen and state. But we are enduring what Sam Francis called “anarcho-tyranny,” a situation in which the government either refuses to or is unable to enforce its most fundamental laws — e.g., controlling the borders, ensuring that its revenue agents are not engaged in an unhinged political jihad with an eye toward stacking elections, etc. — while at the same time it seeks to regulate the minutiae of citizens’ lives with all the terrible moral ferocity of David Frum on a Tuesday afternoon espresso bender.

I’ve been treated to several bracing lectures about the rule of law this week in reaction to my views on the miniature insurrection in Nevada. What Cliven Bundy is up to, cinematic though it may be, is small-time. A country of 314 million can endure a little jaywalking on the part of its people from time to time. But when you have a government that refuses to follow its own laws — and uses malicious prosecution for political ends — you don’t really have a government any more. You have gangsters. And when the cops and robbers are the same people, who do you call for help?

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It’s time for Western states to take control of federal lands within their borders, lawmakers and county commissioners from Western states said at Utah’s Capitol on Friday.

More than 50 political leaders from nine states convened for the first time to talk about their joint goal: wresting control of oil-, timber -and mineral-rich lands away from the feds…

“What’s happened in Nevada is really just a symptom of a much larger problem,” Lockhart said…

“Those of us who live in the rural areas know how to take care of lands,” Fielder said, who lives in the northwestern Montana town of Thompson Falls…

“If we don’t stand up and act, seeing that trajectory of what’s coming … those problems are going to get bigger,” Ivory said.

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That’s because the realm of politics can’t provide us a foundation for neighborliness and forbearance. At a time when so many expect government to save us because nothing else seems up to the task, we ought to realize that one thing government definitely can’t save us from is our mutual enmity. In fact, the more we believe that our political challenges can only be solved at the national level, the more angry we’ll grow with one another, as all possibilities of governance become an all-or-nothing game. Lincoln was just wrong to hope that “reverence for the laws” would become our “political religion.”

We’d sooner revere the government than revere its rules and regulations. That’s why the left is apt to fear Bundy and the right is apt to celebrate him. Bundy wants to challenge the scope of government authority, not harm the agents of its power. For liberals, that’s a much more serious political problem than terrorism. For conservatives, that’s a call—sometimes literally—to arms. Each side offends the other by seeming to justify their sense of doom…

[Rand] Paul is right that we must deal with the Bundy crisis in the spirit of neighborly forbearance. To do so, however, we need to turn our gaze away from politics for a moment. For devout Christians—and not just the devout—Easter weekend is an especially propitious time to do exactly that. Before religion was conscripted into the nationalization of all political issues, more of us could see clearly that the realms of church and of faith ameliorated the burdensome work of forgiving enemies, reconciling with foes, and recognizing one another as beings plunged up to our necks in the same hard predicaments.

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