FBI to Bundys: Let's settle this standoff peaceably

Standoff in this case may overstate reality. The latest conflict between the Bundy clan and the federal government has certainly played out with more drama on the media stage than it has in the remote area of Oregon in question. According to the Oregonian, it’s hardly a siege, and law enforcement hasn’t even shown up in force as of yet:


And though the Bundys are involved in the Oregon occupation, the scene can hardly be described as a standoff. The 20 or so militants at the refuge come and go as they please. No police were apparent Sunday anywhere between Burns and the 30-mile drive to the refuge.

On top of that, the two men at the center of the proximate cause for the demonstration — the resentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond — want nothing to do with the seizure of the unmanned federal outpost in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Hammonds will surrender themselves today to serve their longer sentences in federal prison, and their attorneys want as much distance from the Bundys as possible:

A family friend who asked not to be publicly identified told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, left Harney County over the weekend to report. He said they were traveling to California. …

The Hammonds have said through their attorneys that Ammon Bundy doesn’t speak for them. That didn’t stop Cliven Bundy, who demanded by letter that Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward take Hammond men into protective custody to shield them from reporting for prison. Bundy engaged in his own standoff last year when federal agents tried to seize his cattle.

Even other militia leaders in the region aren’t exactly rushing to side with the Bundys in this standoff:

Militia groups through the day Sunday continued to distance themselves from the occupation through press statements.

“These actions were premeditated and carried out by a small group of persons who chose to carry out this takeover,” said 3% Idaho, whose president helped organized Saturday’s rally and parade.


In other words, the Bundys are hardly leading a massive revolt. That has the FBI hopeful that a peaceful end to the standoff can be arranged before it escalates into something uglier:

Federal law enforcement officials on Monday sought to bring a peaceful end to the weekend occupation of a headquarters of an Oregon U.S. wildlife refuge by self-styled militiamen, while authorities said all staff at the facility were safe. …

“Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved, we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

What if you called for a war but no one showed up? That seems to be the strategy behind the FBI and BLM response. The Bundys have no hostages, and the facility isn’t exactly a critical outpost. They can afford to wait, and wait a long time, for the Bundys to get bored and slip away. That strategy may be the product of hard-learned lessons at Ruby Ridge and Waco, where federal agents turned fringe groups into causes célèbres, and fueled the extremism that they had hoped to confront. Thus far the only real standoff is in the form of press-release salvos, and the FBI would almost certainly prefer to keep it that way.

And why shouldn’t they? At least for now, this is nothing much different than the Occupy protests that seized public land for extended periods of time in 2011-12. The Bundys aren’t squatting on parks and public facilities for weeks or months on end, nor are they blocking major traffic arteries in urban areas, as the Black Lives Matter protesters routinely do for their own purposes. Those protests got shrugged off, despite their illegal nature, and few if any of their leaders prosecuted for it. As long as this protest remains peaceful, there’s no need to storm the Bundys’ position, especially given its remote location and the lack of impact on public services. Their extremist cause may get fewer up-twinkles from the media than Occupy’s radical causes, but they’re both fringe movements with little sympathy from the mainstream — so why would the FBI or BLM want to make martyrs out of them?


The Hammonds, however, have a better case to make with the public, which may be why their attorneys want to keep their distance from the Bundys. Reason’s Jacob Sullum argues that sentencing mandates have led to an injustice, especially given the lack of real damage done by the Hammonds in the first place:

The first fire set by the Hammonds, which was intended to eliminate invasive species on their property, ended up consuming 139 acres of federal land. The second fire, which was aimed at protecting the Hammonds’ winter feed from a wildfire sparked by lightning, burned about an acre of public land. Although the Hammonds did not seek the required government permission for either burn, the damage to federal land seems to have been unintentional. In 2012 they were nevertheless convicted under 18 USC 844(f)(1), which prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who “maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive,” any federal property.

Viewing that penalty as clearly unjust given the facts of the case, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan instead imposed a three-month sentence on Dwight Hammond, who was convicted of one count, and two concurrent one-year sentences on Steven Hammond, who was convicted of two counts. Those terms were within the ranges recommended by federal sentencing guidelines that would have applied but for the statutory minimum, which Hogan rejected as inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment. Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, responding to a government appeal, disagreed with Hogan, saying he had no choice but to impose five-year sentences on both men, since “a minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard.” That is why the Hammonds, who had already completed their original sentences, were ordered back to federal prison, the development that led to Saturday’s protest.


Perhaps the focus should be on the government’s insistence on putting a 73-year-old man in prison for five years for protecting his own land. This should have been a civil case from the beginning to get fair restitution for the damage caused by the Hammonds. If that approach had been taken from the beginning, none of what followed would have happened — or at the very least, it would have even less sympathy than it has now.

Update: I agree with my friend and former colleague Erick Erickson in his Facebook post. Just because a media double standard exists — and it clearly does — does not mean I’m going to be sympathetic to people who break the law and threaten law-enforcement personnel:

Second, just because there is a double standard does not mean any conservatives should be cheering the one when opposing the other. I’m pro-life, but I’m not going to cheer someone shooting up an abortion clinic. I support the sell off of federal land and giving priority water and land use rights to farmers. But I’m not going to cheer taking over a park visitor center or threatening marshals.

There are nuances to many situations some people have a vested interest in treating as binary, pitting American against American. While I’m sympathetic to the concerns of those in Oregon, I’d no more cheer on their lawbreaking than I would cheer on the law breaking of leftwing hoodlums trying to block abortion votes in Texas or union reform votes in Wisconsin.

Third, for those on the right hailing these guys, there is a pretty big and distinct difference between armed protest and unarmed protest. Based on media reports, these guys are not only armed, but threatening violence. I’m not going to be cheering these guys. The media will always treat the leftwing protestors more sympathetically. But adding arms and threats of bodily harm make this something more. No, I will not use the word terrorism for it because it is not terrorism. But it certainly is an unlawful, armed protest for which no one should be rooting.



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