April 19 is the 21st anniversary of the holocaust which ended the 51-day standoff between followers of the Branch Davidians and federal authorities in Waco, Texas. Though it calmed down before any violence took place, all last week the news cycle was consumed with talk of a comparable, potentially bloody confrontation between supporters of lawbreaking cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents in Nevada.
Back in 1993, Bundy refused to sell his grazing rights back to the federal government so they could protect an endangered species of tortoise. Bundy continued right on letting his cattle roam even after a Ninth Circuit Appeals Court judge rejected his states right argument about the land not belonging to the damn feds anyway. Bundy says his family has homesteaded the land for more than 100 years, and he doesn’t recognize federal authority.
Whether Bundy is in the right or not – and he is, and isn’t – the troubling part of some of the Waco comparisons is the feeling that if something happened to him or his family, there would be a crowd of people ready to justify the violence if it came from a government gun. Maybe in a country with this many laws, and this many feds, an ill-advised, stubborn stand like Bundy’s is a good thing for its own sake.
To their credit, the BLM have held off for a long while – years, really. And anyone who has seen footage of the Davidians’ home at Mt. Carmel burning can picture how badly impatient feds can mess up. If Bundy is an antagonistic lawbreaker – and he is – this just increases the likelihood of hot tempered protesters and heavily-armed, free speech-impeding, federal authorities letting violence happen. But they backed down instead.
Why? Perhaps, as a Townhall writer posited, it is thanks to our new era of Smartphones and social media. When Bundy’s one (adult) son got Tasered and his aunt got knocked down, the footage further fueled the righteous rage of the militia and Tea Party supporters who came in to support the family. During Waco, the Davidians’ film from inside Mt. Carmel was never released to the media for fear of humanizing the group too much. The press was kept more than a mile away from the Davidians during the standoff, meaning they had to depend almost entirely on the FBI’s spin to gather information. And though the footage of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles busting down walls and pumping CS gas into a building that contained more than 20 children was chilling, it was still distant enough not to unsettle certain folks more afraid of cults than of feds. As was the fire. Before, during, and after Waco, the feds controlled the story. This is no longer as easy to do. And it’s a great way to demand the government have patience – though admittedly they surely want to avoid another Waco for their own PR.
Folks looking for a hero in Bundy may find he comes up short. He arrogantly believes the law about cattle grazing fees does not apply to him. He is flirting with violence by calling out militias and refusing to back down – he is clearly not a pragmatic man. And his understanding of federalism is arguably built on very shaky legal ground. But if the grazing fees are bad, and the BLM is too powerful – and let’s say they are, considering that the federal government owns an enormous 47 percent of land in the west, including 87 percent of Nevada – then a reckless fellow like Bundy is just the person most likely to push back.
There have been more recent dramas than Waco, which included other odd characters with half-noble causes. Back in 2007, Ed and Elaine Brown of New Hampshire made their stand after denying the legitimacy of and then refusing to pay their federal income taxes. Eventually captured without violence, the Browns, whose bizarre style of conspiracy theorist Christianity is why they opposed taxes, were sentenced to more than 35 years in prison – basically a death sentence for the 60-something couple. A bearded, hard-eyed Randy Weaver holding a press conference on their lawn about his experience during the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff was not the ticket to making the Browns’ cause seem just for the rest of the nation either. Fringey folk who threaten law enforcement do come together, and the rest of us reasonable people marvel – either horrified or impressed – at the people who would risk their lives and freedom in this way.
Reasonable people don’t do what Bundy has been doing. If there is any blood spilled in the next few weeks, you could blame him for refusing to back down. And you would be correct. Randy Weaver could have saved his wife and son if he had come in on firearm charges before his Ruby Ridge standoff began. And Koresh could have done the same for his followers had he surrendered before things spun out of control. Hopefully, the next group that makes a stand or doesn’t comply with orders will not have so many awkward religious beliefs. Maybe if you teach your children racist views, they deserve to get shot in the back by a US Marshal like Weaver’s son.
Of course that’s not true. Yet, similar justifications are offered when schizophrenic, occasionally violent homeless men, or groups of black radicals in Philadelphia are killed by law enforcement. There is always cause – fear, partisanship, a desire to seem "reasonable" and not like them – to say that someone dissident is "asking for it" when they challenge a government gun. That’s enough of a reason to support Bundy a little bit.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.