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How the Right-Wing Militia Conquered America

A standoff with authorities at a federal wildlife preserve is a disconcerting reminder of America's vigilante tradition.
A screenshot from a video by Jon Ritzheimer, posted on December 31, 2015. (Image: YouTube)

A screenshot from a video by Jon Ritzheimer, posted on December 31, 2015. (Image: YouTube)

Federal authorities found themselves in a tense standoff with an armed right-wing militia on Saturday afternoon after "tensions" between ranchers escalated into the occupation of a federal wildlife preserve, the Guardian reports.

According to the Associated Press, Ammon Bundy—the son of infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who enjoyed his own standoff against federal authorities over cattle grazing in 2014—joined about "a dozen" other militia members to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Burns, Oregon. The AP reports that Bundy posted a video on Facebook calling on militiamen to join him in "standing up" to federal authorities. His message included a statement: "ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED." A few dozen other armed militiamen have joined Bundy; the group plans on occupying the territory "for the next few years."

Despite the media attention paid to Bundy, it's actually two other ranchers—Dwight and Steve Hammond—who are really at the heart of the case. The two "were convicted of arson, but under a provision of an expansive federal law punishing terrorism" according to the Oregonian. "Their case heightened debate about how the federal government runs its lands.... The plight of the Hammonds has become a rallying call for one militia and patriot group after another," the Oregonian reports. "Men who see tyranny in federal acts are standing for the two men, though the Hammonds have said through their lawyers they want no part of the militancy." A father and son's run-in with the law has thus become a rallying cry for armed libertarian "patriot" groups.

For the likes of Bundy, appropriating unused land is something of a perceived historical birthright.

Where do these guys get off brandishing arms against a government that doesn't come anywhere near legitimate tyranny? This is the twisted legacy of America's experiment with frontier independence, and it is not a good thing. As I wrote in August with regards to the Oath Keepers, "what originally began as a legitimate defense of property necessitated by the lawlessness of the 19th-century American frontier has since morphed into a cover for intimidation and terror." Bundy's ilk have a history of maneuvering land-use disputes to bring anti-government radicals into the fold. One of the Oregon organizers, Jon Ritzheimer, put together a series of protests in October that involved showing up at mosques heavily armed. And while the Oath Keepers claim the Hammond family doesn't want an armed standoff, these militiamen are all carrying guns themselves. The whole showdown is basically hypocritical nonsense.

Anti-government "patriot" groups have been on the rise for years, a result of stagnant wages and anxiety over our black Democratic president. To be sure, a new NBC News/Survey Monkey/Esquire online poll indicates that white conservatives are the angriest demographic in America right now. With the Oath Keepers popping up in towns like Ferguson, Missouri, and the preponderance of heavily armed "protests" against "tyranny," one has to wonder: How did this become acceptable? How is it that we live in a country where but grown white men are allowed to brandish automatic rifles with impunity?

It's a strange hypocrisy, but a fundamentally American one. It doesn't matter that, as the Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham points out, these would-be patriots are basically asking for the ultimate government handout by seizing taxpayer-funded territory. While the Department of the Interior obviously has a few things to say about this in terms of bureaucratic obstinance, the fundamental principle of public lands in American life has been one around development and use, ever since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 urged adventurous Americans to seek out the fertile lands west of the Allegheny mountains. All public land policy starting with Alexander Hamilton's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury has focused on maximum emigration and maximum value. Every ordinance passed during the first half of the 19th century that dealt with the frontier was designed to enshrine property and preemption at the core of the American system.

This idea of liberating land spawned the first protection agencies and militias that dotted the American frontier in lieu of government during the great westward migration of the 19th century: Mining camps, land claims association, and cattlemen's organizations didn't just protect property rights, but adjudicated the legitimacy of claims based on use.

Because of this, the cultural perception of public lands has, from the outset, been explicitly imagined as an extension of the Lockean proviso: As long as you can work it and create value from it, it should be yours. You can see this on display when Bundy makes a plea to reporters for industriousness, explaining that the would-be occupation is designed "to free up these lands and getting the ranchers back to ranching, getting the miners back to mining, and getting the loggers back to logging." For Bundy and his peers, appropriating unused land is something of a perceived historical birthright rather than a crime.

It's worth noting that violent resistance is not categorically a norm-violating act, and not just because of the "well-regulated" militia baked into the Second Amendment (although it's perhaps ironic that Texans chose Saturday to celebrate their state's new open-carry status). In fact, there's a whole subset of legal lore designed to explicitly legitimize intimidation under the guise of wrestling with tyranny. Popular sovereignty, the bread and butter of any would-be revolutionary, has been a cultural bulwark to support states' rights; just consider recent polling that shows an increase in the number of Americans who believe local courts should ignore the "law of the land" handed down by the Supreme Court. The right to revolution is so deeply ingrained in the political theology of the West that, when coupled with our exceptional cultural emphasis on property rights and freedom, this "patriot" group is as American as apple pie.

This is why right-wing militias can occupy a federal building without being branded as terrorists while a young Muslim boy gets held for questioning for building a clock. There's an entire American cultural artifact, steeped in our history of rugged independence, that has made what should be considered radical and dangerous acts of terror something to be shrugged off by sheriff's deputies under the auspices of the Second Amendment. Right wing extremism has been on the rise for years—and it's time to take it seriously as an act that's no longer beyond criticism just because it resembles a facsimile of "patriotism."