Oregon standoff raises specters of domestic terrorism
When armed activists took over a wildlife refuge headquarters in Oregon and warned that they would fight back if law enforcement tried to remove them, they ceased being self- described “patriots.” They unequivocally became armed outlaws. And their action raises the question of what constitutes domestic terrorism.
They embody a dangerous rise in far-right extremism toward which America must no
longer turn a blind eye merely because it is politically convenient in some circles.
Ostensibly the situation in Oregon began with the scheduled incarceration of Oregon
ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve Hammond. The two were convicted of arson
for twice setting fire to federal lands a decade ago. They served an initial sentence of a few
months, but under appeal and a federal mandatory minimum, the courts ordered them back
To their credit, the Hammonds arrived at the prison gates on Monday without fuss. They
paid their fines, will do their time and want nothing to do with the armed protesters who
had glommed onto their case.
The protesters haven’t been so easily dissuaded. The Hammonds became an excuse to
preach their tired, warped and discredited antifederalist interpretation of the Constitution.
They set out to occupy an abandoned building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and
demanded that the federal government give federal land to local residents.
The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies own large
swaths of land in the West, including more than half of the state of Oregon. As awareness of
the nation’s collective environmental stewardship obligations grew during recent decades,
managers have curtailed some private uses of those lands, particularly ranching, farming
and logging. Couple that with the fact that rural counties cannot charge property taxes on
federally owned property, and local opposition begins to make some sense.
But it still doesn’t come close to justifying outlaw vigilantism.
Such opposition is not universal in the West, of course. Progressives in Portland tend to like
upholding the nation’s environmental duty to future generations and being able to visit
unspoiled wilderness on the weekend. Some have been known to camp out in trees to keep
them from being chopped down. Portland is as far from the Malheur wildlife refuge as St.
Louis is from Kansas City. The difference is that there are mountains and desert in the way
and no interstate highway. A deep cultural chasm exists between Portlandia and Harney
The White House this week declared the Malheur occupation a “local law enforcement
matter,” and the FBI only became involved belatedly, still leaving most of the heavy lifting to
the local sheriff and Oregon State Police. No offense to Oregon law enforcement, which we
assume is as capable as any in the country, but when armed militants take over a federal
facility, that’s much more than a local incident.
If these protesters were oliveskinned Muslims in traditional headgear instead of white
Mormons and Christians in Stetsons and baseball caps, the political reaction would be very
different. Republican presidential candidates would be beside themselves with outrage that
President Barack Obama refuses to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorists” to describe
them. They would demand quick action to end a terrorist incident.
It’s tempting to demand the same for these radicals, but down that road lie blood and
martyrs. The mistake is not that officials are taking a cautious approach to these outlaws,
but that the exercise of restraint is so clearly inconsistent with the way federal and local
police handle other cases where firearms are deployed for unlawful purposes.
In 2009, soon after Obama took office, the Homeland Security Department issued a report warning about the danger of domestic terrorism from farright, oftenracist, anti-
government groups. Conservative commentators and lawmakers howled. They demanded
the report be retracted, claiming the Obama administration was demonizing conservative
values and speech. The administration caved.
In the years since, that report has proven prescient, even as it was ignored. Two of the
militant leaders in Oregon, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are sons of Cliven Bundy, whose own
fight over federal lands nearly ended in violent confrontation in 2014.
Ammon Bundy’s opposition to federal tyranny is fairly selective. In 2010, he took out a
$530,000 Small Business Administration loan that taxpayers are subsidizing. How is that
Elsewhere, the shooter at a black church in Charleston, S.C., last year fit the radical right
profile. So did the shooters of two police officers in Las Vegas who left a “Don’t Tread on
These venomous beliefs that strike at the heart of our country’s ideals must not be tolerated,
but they can be fought short of outright confrontation.
There are no hostages facing danger in Oregon. Better to isolate the occupiers and wait them
out for now. Better that than spark another Ruby Ridge or Waco.
In the meantime, the president, political leaders and others must condemn this radical
vigilantism. Armed occupation of public property is not how you dissent in a democracy. If
you don’t like what the government does, lobby for change or run for office. Public leaders
from across the political spectrum must leave no doubt that these are outlaws. Just because
you have a gun and a selfrighteous beef does not mean the law doesn’t apply to you.
And when these armed radicals do run out of food or get too cold, arrest them and charge
them. Give them the fair trial they deserve. Even civil disobedience — a stretch in this case —
has consequences. If they are permitted simply to go home, it would embolden others to
take up arms.
At what point does the line disappear between civil disobedience and domestic terrorism?
We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably somewhere between an itchy trigger finger and the
end of a gun barrel.
(This editorial was commissioned from freelance editorialists and edited by the Post-
Dispatch editorial board.)