Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
Several weeks ago Rick Perlstein wrote a piece about the standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He called it “a watershed in American history” because those at the ranch were able to use firearms and the threat of violence to get the BLM to back down. Perlstein notes “anti-constitutional insurgency as Constitution-worship on the right” has a long history, and cites the Minutemen as an example. Yet he neglects to mention more recent history that provides important context.
The federal government had similar confrontations with armed insurgents at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, and both cases ended with people dead — spectacularly so in the latter. Those events have taken on iconic significance for the far right. A quick trip to your favorite search engine will turn up an abundance of pages devoted to memorializing the events, and citing them as examples of a tyrannical government waging war against its citizens.
How would Perlstein have the BLM approach this case? There is every reason to believe another armed showdown would once again lead to loss of life, and another item being added to the far right’s list of grievances against the government. I understand his consternation at the BLM backing down last month, but history has shown that escalating tensions at such a volatile moment can have disastrous short term consequences and pernicious long term ones.
For as much as I think Bundy is a freeloader, a liar and a mooch, I was glad to see the BLM pull back. Situations like this one, Ruby Ridge and Waco are typically years in the making — and the worst thing the government can do is to force a dramatic conclusion. The BLM acted prudently by not creating one. I thought it showed the government had learned from recent history and was being careful not to repeat it.
That doesn’t mean the government should just go away, of course. It should just use the better means at its disposal to bring Bundy to justice. It can play the situation out longer than Bundy, and it should. The gun toting yahoos who showed up at Bundy’s ranch aren’t going to stick around if it looks like they won’t have a chance to play Freedom Fighter. They’ll drift away when it becomes clear the resolution is going to be considerably less exciting.
Officials seem to be thinking that way. On Sunday federal and state employees were quoted saying that Bundy crossed a line and the matter should continue to be pursued through the legal system. They haven’t given up or gone away, and they haven’t conceded anything to Bundy. They just decided — sensibly, I think — to dissipate the tension that led to the crisis and take a less provocative approach.
For as unsatisfying as it is to see the gun nuts claim victory in that one encounter, it’s better in the long run to see the thing slowly wind down with a whimper and not a bang. It isn’t hard to isolate Bundy. One way is just to put a microphone in front of him and let him talk. The support that sprang up around him began to wither once he began to expand on his thoughts. Another is to start cutting him off from the civilized world. Surely a rugged individualist like him can do without postal delivery, right? That’s just another form of dependence on the feds.
Maybe the same could be done with phone and Internet service. Other, non-firearm intensive federal agencies could start giving him some extra attention. He can be gradually squeezed without being attacked. Doing so will take more time, but it’s a necessary precaution when dealing with violent extremists. It would be nice to bring such people under the law more quickly; not doing so is no watershed moment, though. Hotheaded fanatics have to be handled differently. The last thing we need is to create a new generation of martyrs.
Image: Fire breaks out at the Branch Davidian’s Mt. Carmel compound during the Waco siege. Public domain FBI photo via Wikimedia Commons.