Terrorism, the Oregon Standoff, and Mandatory Minimums

by , January 08, 2016

There are myriad perspectives on the events currently taking place in Harney County, Oregon. That is, the dozen armed men who made themselves at home in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are terrorists to some, fools to others, and fighters against tyranny to a few.

They’ve gone to Oregon in honor of two men named Hammond – a father and son – who did not ask them to take over any buildings, but who are facing five years in prison on charges related to wildfires in 2006. The Hammonds say they were purposeful burns that got out of control, the government say they were set to cover up poaching.

(Also tied in is the big issue of how much land the government owns in the west, as Justin Raimondo described in more detail over here.)

Folks like Glenn Greenwald have long been repeating the point that “terror” is a political term. One that tends to serve the needs of the powerful entities that need their invasions and mass murders to be justified. If you are a state – especially a favored state on the world stage – your violence comes with supposed good intentions, and therefore nobody is supposed to take it personally. People we call terrorists, Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden, etc. are often honest in their brutality. They know they are being just as bad as their enemy.

What does this have to do with the Bundy boys who have taken it upon themselves to have a dramatic standoff with feds? Well, nothing. As Sheldon Richman and other sensible people have pointed out, whatever else you think of these men and their cause, they are not terrorists by even the loosest definition of the word.

Except, that is, for the fact that Dwight and Steve Hammond were convicted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a legacy of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the Oklahoma City Bombing. Technically terrorists? Maybe they they are. But the PATRIOT Act isn’t patriotic, and the Hammonds or their supporters are not comparable to the WTC bombers or Timothy McVeigh just because of a scarily-named statute.

It doesn’t matter in partisan politics, however. What matters is winning. The liberals who are using the t-word may be sincerely hysterical about this redneck uprising. Or they simply be playing the same, cynical, partisan game that conservatives play when they (most recently) painted the Black Lives Matter movement with a broad, cop-killing, terrorizing brush.

The Bundys and some of their supporters have a history of being…arguably paranoid and certainly racist, etc. But as Conor Friedersdorf points out in The Atlantic, the rallying cause for this occupation is not just a good cause, but one that could have had common ground with liberals. It’s mandatory minimums, and excessive government punishments.

The Hammonds initially had a judge who rejected the five years charge for their crime (and it could have been worse than five years). But they got stuck between the district judge and the Supreme Court, which ruled that that verdict wasn’t cruel and unusual, more or less because people have gotten harsher punishment for lesser charges.

Five years is a long time. So is the 35 years that Ed and Elaine Brown got for having their own standoff in 2007. Or the ones the surviving Branch Davidians got slapped with after Waco. All those people were contentious, annoying, misguided, armed, and victims of a militarized government.

We have a sentence inflation problem in America. The war on drugs propelled this, and the terror of rising crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s made it more grotesque still. Terrorist incidents pre-9/11 (or sometimes just animal rights activists, who have gotten horrifyingly harsh sentences for their actions) propelled this prison-filling madness, and September 11 finished the job. Suspected terrorists can be held for 14 years without trial in Gitmo. Nonviolent drug dealers can get life in prison.

Though after all these years, there is some bipartisan consensus that these sentences are out of control, the warring element remains. Republicans love Gitmo and aren’t that sympathetic to crack dealers, and are scornful of Black Lives Matter or any kind of street-fighting-man protest, but some are on the Hammonds’ side here. And now Democrats are calling for blood, for drone strikes, and for people to go Waco on the Hammonds (or so hints my Facebook feed). There is no place for the Friedersdorfian plea for bipartisan coming together.

This is a war mentality. Not just that rednecks whom liberals distrust (the way conservatives distrust black kids in hoodies or Muslims anywhere) are doing something arguably stupid while armed, but that fervent hope that someone terrible happens to them because they are bad and would deserve it. This assumption that they are The Enemy and therefore the full force of the militarized United States should come down upon them. We need to stop acting like that, even towards people who scare us a little or give us weird, cultural confusion. Even towards people who wouldn’t pay us the same respect.

The Hammonds didn’t kill anyone, and neither have the men occupying the building committed any violence yet. Whether they are righteous patriots or misguided loonies, or somewhere in the muddy middle, sentencing laws in this country remain warped. Whether this is a dreadful way of raising that issue or no, the thing to hope for is not a vindication of partisan assumptions brought about by a shoot-out. The thing to hope for is not a bloodbath, just to prove you’re right – that they were the enemy all the time.

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.

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