Oregon standoff: Frustration is reasonable; extremism is not

Reports of armed men occupying a remote national wildlife refuge have been pouring in from Eastern Oregon the past few days. Since the creation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, frustration and contention have been prevalent in the region, some of it reasonable and some of it less so. Unfortunately, the legitimate concerns of local Oregonians have been overshadowed by the radical actions of the armed group led by the Bundy brothers. Before we comment on the Bundy group, it is important to understand the backstory that led up to this event. Ever since the creation of the refuge, the federal government has sought to expand the preserve by purchasing adjacent private land. Locals allege that when landowners refused to sell, the federal government got aggressive, diverting water and flooding ranches. With their land underwater and livelihoods in jeopardy, ranchers were forced to sell. The Hammonds have been among the few landowners living adjacent to the refuge who have stayed.

Locals report that the federal government has continued its aggressive action toward this family for years by barricading roads and revoking grazing permits. This tension culminated with the Hammonds being prosecuted for controlled burns which got out of control and ignited 139 acres of public land. Although they had already served their time, a judge recently ordered Dwight Hammond and his son Steven back to jail to serve an additional four years each. The Hammonds, who turned themselves in yesterday, have garnered support from their community and ranchers around the country in the form of peaceful protests and rallies. Led by individuals like Ryan Bundy, an active participant in a 2014 armed standoff with BLM officers in Nevada, anti-government protesters broke off from one of these demonstrations and took control of the refuge. As is so often the case when people resort to extremism to accomplish their goals, the Bundy group is totally in the wrong.

Mr. Bundy has stated, “The end goal here is that we are here to restore the rights to the people here so that they can use the land and resources. All of them.” Many Westerners share Mr. Bundy’s frustration with poor federal land management. They see how the feds have managed Western lands like a museum, rather than like a garden, and how that has harmed individual rights, depressed local economies, and polluted the environment. As conservatives, we often recognize when critiquing our progressive counterparts that the rightness of an action is about more than a person’s or group’s intentions. You have to be doing the right thing in the right way, beyond just having good reasons for taking action. The same principle applies to the Bundy group in Oregon. They have chosen to express a reasonable frustration with the federal government in an unreasonable and dangerous way: through an armed takeover of federal land. That extreme action does nothing to constructively influence policy. More importantly, such extremism threatens the cause of freedom.

Extremism and freedom cannot coexist. Extremism abandons reasonable consideration and dialogue for close-mindedness and intolerance, which in turn often leads to violence. Freedom, on the other hand, embraces a candid exchange of ideas and a sound social order. Extremism can be found across the political spectrum. From an armed group taking a federal building in Oregon to a Virginia man shooting up a Family Research Council office due to an unflattering label given it by the Southern Poverty Law Center, extremism is becoming far too prevalent in our society. Although the Bundy group members claim to be champions of liberty, they completely misunderstand and dangerously undermine what they claim to cherish. They have chosen to abandon the American way of pursuing political change – through cultural influence, legislative action, and judicial redress – in favor of the rule of an armed mob. That is anything but freedom.

We can speculate all day over whether the Bundy group is trying to take down the government one wildlife refuge at a time. But such speculations miss the critical point. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable,” said President John F. Kennedy. His words are still relevant today, especially in a small corner of the American Northwest.

This is Matt Anderson with the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute. Thanks for listening.

This post is an edited transcript of the Sutherland Soapbox, a weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found below.

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Photo of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters (credit: Cacophony via Wikimedia Commons).