The Malheur Wildlife Refuge has a message posted explaining the closure of the area:
The Fish and Wildlife Service is aware that an unknown number of armed individuals have broken into and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge facility near Burns, Oregon. While the situation is ongoing, the main concern is employee safety and we can confirm that no federal staff were in the building at the time of the initial incident. We will continue to monitor the situation for additional developments.
The number of “invaders” varies according to reports ranging from 150, a number about half those who were protesting the incarceration of a local rancher, to 24, a number based on sightings in the local area. We’ve met these people before.
Specifically, we met them in the ongoing dispute over the Bundy’s refusal to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties, and a standoff with federal, local, and state authorities which ended peacefully – but with the Bundy’s back in court having resolved nothing about their payment of fees and assessments. However, all was not peaceful about the people the Bundys tend to attract – two of whom assassinated two Las Vegas police officers and killed a “good guy with a gun” in a nearby retail store.
Categorically speaking, they are part and parcel of the Sovereign Citizen movement. Indeed, after the federal authorities moved personnel out of Bundystan to prevent attacks on Bureau of Land Management employees, the Bundys pitched a party celebrating one year of ‘freedom’ from federal control. Their “Liberty Celebration” included some predictable faces like that of Robert Crooks, founder of the Montana Minutemen. [NPR]
The FBI is clear on who these people are – domestic terrorists. The FBI assessment concludes:
Although the sovereign-citizen movement does not always rise to violence, its members’ illegal activities and past violent—including fatal—incidents against law enforcement make it a group that should be approached with knowledge and caution. It is important that law enforcement be aware of sovereign citizens’ tactics so agencies can warn the public of potential scams, spot illegal activity and understand its potential severity, and be prepared for and protect against violent behavior or backlash through intimidation and harassment.
It’s important to remember at this point that trespassing cattle, making phony license plates, and filing nuisance law suits aren’t the only thing these people are capable of doing – Terry Nichols, of Oklahoma City Bombing infamy claimed to be a Sovereign Citizen. [FBI]
There are some politicians who appear to want Americans to focus on foreign or foreign inspired terrorism, but a significant number of voices are reminding us that we are at more risk of insult, injury, or death at the hands of right wing domestic terrorists than from any foreign source or sources.
The following chart, published by Mother Jones after the Charleston, SC church shooting illustrates the point:
Or, to look at the situation from another perspective — “The Sovereign Citizen Movement is the number one domestic terrorism threat today, a bit jump from just seven years ago when the group was seventh on the list.” [D&T]
Given this record and the data from serious sources like the University of Maryland’s START group, [pdf] we know the right wing extremists are dangerous. Additionally, even if the numbers aren’t readily at hand the images of Oklahoma City are still an emotional tag reminding anyone who cares to be concerned that the danger is constantly with us. Coping with a domestic threat of this nature is another matter.
If we know these people are domestic terrorists, and we know they are dangerous why haven’t we done more to minimize their effectiveness?
First, there are too many voices rising in support of right wing extremist views which conflate conservatism with right wing extremism. It wasn’t so long ago that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a report indicating the dangers posed by domestic right wing individuals and groups, and she endured Congressional and political lambasting for her efforts. [WaPo] It would be helpful if (1) conservative members of the punditry could distance themselves from the “Freedom” rants of their extremist cohorts, and (2) the media could differentiate between conservative and extremist elements. This is made all the more difficult as so called “conservative voices” move toward extremist positions; but, it’s not an impossible task.
Secondly, we need to disentangle the Gun Rights Lobby from the domestic terrorism issue. The transparently irrational argument that the 2nd Amendment protects all others is an invitation to the arms accumulations of right wing extremists. It is perfectly possible to require background checks, enact safe storage laws, and limit the capacity of firearms without damaging anyone’s enjoyment of hunting or target practice. It is also perfectly possible to limit the number of firearms a person can purchase during a specific period of time, or preclude straw purchases, without infringing on personal liberties. In fact, we could reduce the necessity of “militarizing the police” if we could decrease the availability of military style weaponry available to domestic terrorists.
Third, we could apply the framework we use for discussing foreign terrorism to domestic terrorism. The tendency of some media outlets to describe domestic terrorists as “mentally disturbed,” or “loners,” or “disengaged” individuals; or more dramatically — “loons,” “whack jobs,” and “childish,” – leaves the impression that these people are not as dangerous as their foreign counterparts. The 168 killed and more than 680 injured in Oklahoma City would argue otherwise.
We might also want to ask some of the same questions about domestic terrorism we pose concerning foreign or foreign inspired terrorism. How were these people “radicalized?” What information sources are they using to implement their plans and encourage their conspiracy theories? What motivates them to move into the dark realm of domestic terrorism? How can we encourage members of their communities to divulge information about upcoming plots and plans? Why didn’t some family member, neighbor, fellow church member, inform authorities that there was a plot to occupy a federal facility? Why do we sanction police action against protesters with signs but urge “caution” when facing right wing domestic terrorists?
The answers to these kinds of questions aren’t always pleasant. In the case of the Bundys and their allies there are significant elements of racism and religiosity which are difficult for many Americans to discuss. However, discuss them we must.
Fourth, we might want to pay attention to the NYPD’s assessment of radicalization in domestic terms, in which the extremism comes to the forefront. There is the initial or pre-radical stage, commonly associated with Internet searches for like minded associates; the self identification state during with the person identifies with an extremist perspective becoming immersed in the ideology; moving into the indoctrination stage wherein the person takes on the ideological perspective more intensely; and finally the “jihadist” phase in which the person takes on the persona of a “warrior” – for “babies,” for “God,” or perhaps individual control of public lands? [Minteh]
If we demand that family members and associates notify authorities if someone is progressing along these stages in regard to transnational terrorism, then why don’t we emphasize the necessity of this reporting in regard to domestic terrorism?
Fifth and finally, why aren’t we demanding that someone turn down the rhetoric? Polarization is one thing, extremism is the manifestation of polarization beyond normal comprehension. Those infected with a sense of victimization – or potential victimization – don’t really need to be treated to reinforcement of their bigotry, their prejudices, or their hatred. No, it’s not acceptable to be a bigot, and it’s not acceptable to be a racist, and it’s certainly not acceptable to take up arms against your own government. We have ballot boxes and courts in which to settle differences.
And so we are left with some right wing radical fringe types occupying a federal facility harboring a wish to expand their “territory” into a fire camp (just what this section of the country doesn’t need) who have been radicalized, and whose extremism is reinforced by the babble of extreme views to which they listen intently. We can only hope that they don’t decide to feast on the wildlife the refuge is meant to protect for all of us – the Trumpeter Swans, the Sand Hill Cranes, the Red Band Trout, or any of the other species depending on us for protection and refuge.