On Saturday, Jan. 2, citizens of Burns, Oregon, held a rally protesting the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The local demonstration was co-opted by a militia, led by Nevada native Ammon Bundy, now calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. Following its participation in the planned protest, the militia seized and continues to illegally occupy the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—vowing to remain there unless and until the Hammonds are granted clemency.
Many have been eager to brand Bundy and his militia as terrorists, referring to them as “Yee-haw-dists” or “Vanilla ISIS.” And to be sure, there are similarities with Islamic militant groups. For instance, while Bundy’s “resistance movement” is essentially driven by socio-political issues, chiefly land rights and perceived overreach by the federal government, their campaign is also religiously framed and motivated. This same dynamic holds true for ISIS, al-Qaida and related groups. Moreover, Bundy and his associates hold views that most would consider extreme. In fact, they share ISIS’ admiration for slavery—with Cliven Bundy (Ammon’s father, and the head of the Bundy clan) having suggested that blacks may be better off today if they were still in chains; others from the militia are known members of designated hate groups and extremist organizations. Finally, as with al-Qaida, militants who drew inspiration from the Bundys have carried out atrocities that the family itself had to disavow.
However, any similarities between the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and Islamic terrorists are vastly outweighed by the differences between them.
For instance, the militia is not threatening violence, nor even to deface or destroy federal property, if their demands are not met; the only consequence is continued occupation. In the interim, they are being careful not to damage the refuge or its facilities, they have allowed the public to come and go largely unrestricted, and have even claimed that they will vacate the premises if it seems clear that the local population wants them to go. And so, while it is illegal for the militia to be occupying the Malheur Refuge, their actions would be better understood as an act of civil disobedience than an act of terror.
Granted, Bundy and his supporters are heavily armed. However, there is no evidence that their weapons were illegally obtained, are unlicensed, or are otherwise unlawful—and in the United States there is a constitutional right to bear arms. Clearly, the purpose of the guns is to deter the authorities from raiding them, and consistent with previous standoffs, Bundy has threatened violence if there is any attempt to forcibly dismantle or dislodge their demonstration. However, there is no evidence that they are seeking out this kind of escalation.
And so the authorities have decided to wait them out. Although they are contemplating cutting off power to the site to render the occupation less comfortable, they are otherwise content with monitoring the situation and keeping the lines of communication as open as possible in order to bring the demonstration to a peaceful end. This is exactly what they should be doing.
Black Guns Matter?
Of course, critics are quick to point out that the authorities would not have the same kind of respect for the protesters’ rights, nor exercised the same level of restraint, were federal buildings being occupied by armed minorities—for instance, blacks or Muslims. Recent history suggests they are absolutely correct.
As a matter of fact, the open-carry movement was not started by white conservatives, but by the Black Panthers. Much like the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, the Panthers legally purchased and licensed their guns, and carried them to public demonstrations in order to deter the authorities from impugning on their freedom of speech, their right to assemble, or denying them due process if accused of wrongdoing. These were very real concerns: At the time, civil rights activists were routinely harassed, intimidated, brutalized or killed by police officers or white mobs. Like Bundy, the Panthers emphasized that their weapons were strictly for defensive purposes—they were not seeking out confrontation, but if the others initiated violence, they would respond in kind.
Did conservative lawmakers celebrate black people affirming these constitutional rights? Far from it: Strict gun control laws were drafted, explicitly to disarm the Panthers, receiving wide bipartisan support—to include from Ronald Reagan and the NRA.
Despite the widespread erosion of gun restrictions in the intervening decades, it remains extremely difficult for black people to open-carry: African-Americans have been killed just for walking around with toy weapons or pellet guns. To brandish loaded military-grade ordnance, as white activists frequently do, would not deter authorities—it would spook them into responding with immediate and overwhelming force. Even peaceful protests by unarmed African-Americans have been overwhelmingly regarded as dangerous in right-leaning media—despite the fact that black demonstrators have the same basic demand as the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, namely that the government respect and protect its citizens and their rights in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.
Given this response when black people protest, it almost goes without saying that were a group of Muslim Americans to stockpile military weaponry, form a militia and then seize a government facility—perhaps demanding justice for the torture of U.S. citizens, indefinitely detaining U.S. citizens without trial or executing U.S. citizens without due process (all unconstitutional practices carried out predominantly against Muslims)—such a militia would immediately be branded as, and treated like, a terrorist organization. Indeed, authorities have attempted to entrap Muslim-Americans for terrorism just because they publicly expressed criticism of U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Faux Terror, Real Danger
Clearly, there is a double standard. But here’s the takeaway: Muslims and other minority groups should be empowered to engage in the political sphere just as robustly, dynamically or even confrontationally as their white counterparts—and with the expectation that authorities will respect their rights, exercise the same level of restraint, and extend the same benefit of doubt that the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom have received.
In other words, the goal should be to have minorities treated more like white people--not to have Bundy and his militia treated more like Muslims or black people, as many have urged. No U.S. citizens should be treated as terrorists for engaging in civil disobedience. It is a profound threat to our democracy that so many are willing, even eager, to call for an authoritarian clampdown on their ideological opponents under the pretext of fighting terrorism. It is troubling when Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter is branded this way--and it would be just as disturbing to inflate the threat posed by Ammon Bundy in order to justify the use of force against his militia.
Certainly, there are right-wing groups that are trying to secede from or overthrow the government. While the Bundys may be popular with these groups, they should not be counted among them: Despite incessant railing against federal overreach, the Bundys are heavily dependent on government programs to subsidize their enterprises.
Similarly, there are right-leaning militias who have idiosyncratic and parochial views of what the United States is, or should be. Many of these are perfectly willing to engage in violence, coercion and intimidation in order to realize or protect their ideal. These groups need to be monitored, protected against or even confronted much more aggressively than they have been. However, as to now, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom do not appear to be this kind of threat.
They could become far more radical, both in terms of their ideology and their methods, should the government respond to them in a needlessly authoritarian fashion (moreover, such a clampdown would likely bolster, rather than undermine, public sympathy for their cause). If we haven’t learned this from the last 15 years of exacerbating Islamic terrorism in the name of fighting it, we should take heed of the worst attack on U.S. soil prior to 9/11: the Oklahoma City Bombing. Its perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was attempting to retaliate against the federal government for the overly aggressive ATF and FBI-led raids at Ruby Ridge and Waco. The lesson: Overreacting to faux threats tends to produce real ones.
Ammon Bundy is not a terrorist. He should not be called a terrorist, nor should he be treated like one.