Soon after a bunch of white guys with guns holed up at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in protest against the federal government, wags took to social media to deride them.
“Y’all Qaida,” “YeeHawdists” and “Vanilla ISIS” are some of the clever put-downs circulating on Twitter.
Critics also decried what they perceive as a double standard in the seeming lack of response from law enforcement. If the gun-toting men were black or Muslim, went the typical argument, they would have incurred the full, militarized wrath of law enforcement.
So it might appear, but if you think law enforcement agencies are being deferential out of fear, you couldn’t be more wrong. Be very grateful that federal officials know exactly whom they are dealing with: troublemakers just itching for an excuse to claim that the federal government provoked them first.
As of this writing, things are still calm at the wildlife refuge, nearly 30 miles from the nearest town. But this bunch has itchy trigger fingers and enough conspiracy-addled emotion to take their standoff to the next level of danger.
In this desolate location, these guys are more likely a danger to each other than to the local population — although they have irked nearby residents and the Burns Paiute Tribe, who deem the siege a desecration of sacred land.
Ammon Bundy — the son of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had his own standoff with federal agents in 2014 over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees — and the other men occupying the wildlife refuge splintered off from a protest of several hundred people, a gathering that drew Oregonians concerned about longstanding issues with rules for land overseen by U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Bundy is from Arizona. How’d he wind up in Oregon? He smelled an opportunity for the limelight.
Bundy calls his Oregon crew Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, and it includes his brother and an Arizona man, Jon Ritzheimer, who has gained renown of late for staging armed anti-Muslim protests.
The presence of Ritzheimer and other idiosyncratic “patriots” led the Daily Beast to dub the occupation Wingnut Woodstock. These anti-government activists have come out of the woodwork at a time when some Americans have become hyper-focused on Islamic terrorists, Syrian refugees and other perceived threats to the nation.
Indeed, America faces multiple threats, including homegrown extremists. This month, Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization reviled by extremists, issued a report noting that the number of militia groups in the U.S. leapt to 276 from 202 in 2014.
In October, the Justice Department announced a new office to focus entirely on homegrown extremists. In doing so, the department acknowledged that it had taken its eye off the ball domestically, consumed as it has been with threats of overseas terrorists since 9/11.
Law enforcement authorities closer to the street haven’t been as easily distracted. A June survey by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University found that police were highly aware of the homegrown threat. Surveying nearly 400 departments, it found that 74 percent were more concerned about anti-government extremists than the possibility of an attack inspired by or actually the work of al-Qaida or the Islamic State.
A colleague of mine, Kansas City Star reporter Judy L. Thomas, has spent decades chronicling such movements. She has written extensively on Posse Comitatus, Christian identity groups, white nationalists, militias and now the growth of the sovereign citizen movement, loose networks that see the government as dangerously corrupt and out of control.
Part of the problem, Thomas said, is that we don’t have a consistent definition of domestic terrorism. And the term is sometimes abused for political gain. It can be difficult to determine who is a mere conspiracy theorist with an arsenal and who is likely actually to act out his revolutionary fantasies violently.
The homegrown extremist groups often see themselves as soldier-saviors of America, armed and ready to do battle with the evil federal government that is taking away constitutional rights. Thomas’ sources, including past federal agents, say that much was learned after Waco, where more than 75 people died, as well as in other encounters with militia members. Authorities prefer methods to defuse rather than spark confrontation. That will surely save lives, in Oregon and elsewhere. And it will, one hopes, deny extremists another recruiting opportunity.
Ritzheimer said this in a widely viewed video he posted online from Oregon: “I am 100 percent willing to lay my life down to fight against tyranny in this country.” Authorities are taking him at his word — and not giving him his chance for martyrdom.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.