They're Armed & Dangerous, But Don't Call 'Em Terrorists
January 10, 2016

We live in an era of false equivalencies. Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. The Affordable Care Act and death panels. Guns and cars, because they both kill. And Jesus and Hitler, because they both wore mustaches.

Then there are the people who have taken over the visitors center at a remote national wildlife refuge in Oregon. They are led by a family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government. Their spokesman has threatened to shoot Hillary Clinton "in the vagina." They are armed and dangerous militia members. They are extremists who hijacked a peaceful protest. And they refuse to leave the refuge without a fight. But they are not terrorists, which is the meme conservatives and their media helpmates are furiously peddling in an unconvincing effort to debunk the obvious by calling the comparison a false equivalency.

Before I pile on, let's pause for a moment to consider the core belief of the ranchers who took over the visitors center on January 2 -- that the federal government's ownership of public land is unconstitutional -- because there is a kernel of merit in that position.

That may be difficult for Easterners like myself to grasp since the feds don't own immense swaths of land in our 'hood like they do in the West, including most of the land in the county where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located. But Westerners who yearn for the frontier of yore -- and sometimes eek out a living in the last remaining patches of it -- bring deeply held populist views to the table. The coyotes that wildlife preservationists hold so dear are predatory vermin to be tracked down and slaughtered. The wide open grasslands that environmentalists hold dear are a threat to their economic livelihood if they can't be grazed. And Washington is destroying their way of life.

The unconstitutional argument doesn't hold water, and neither does refusing to pay the reasonably low grazing fees for cattle or being able to set fires on public property with impunity (two fires set by ranchers that clearly were cases of arson provoked the standoff).

I do know from many visits with rancher friends over the years that the feds can be over-weaning landlords who manage by fiat, let alone sometimes lousy custodians of the land, but overall Washington's record has been one of benevolence. This does not give the ranchers a right to do with our land what they damned well please because some of them, like the notorious Cliven Bundy clan, believe their rights trump everyone else's. And in the end, protecting the most precious federal lands like the extraordinary Delaware-sized Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, let alone Malheur, far outweighs opening them up to drilling, mining, grazing and development for tourism.

The ranchers conveniently forget that overgrazing had rendered Malheur a dust bowl by the 1930s. It did not begin to return to its present state as viable high desert grassland and wildlife habit (now visited by some 25 million birds each year) until the destructive practices of ranchers finally were curtailed beginning in the 1970s.

Many politicians west of the Mississippi have typically stood with ranchers, energy companies and developers in their battles with Washington over federal land use, but the Oregon standoff is giving conservative Republicans in particular chest pains.

The takeover is led by the sons of Cliven Bundy, who was the best buddy of Washington-bashing conservatives during a widely publicized 2014 standoff with the feds after the Bureau of Land Management began seizing Bundy's cattle over $1.2 million in unpaid grazing fees on federal land in southeastern Nevada.

It was okay with conservative Republican pols that the Bundys were affiliated with the Oath Keepers, White Mountain Militia and the Praetorian Guard militias, all bulwarks of the so-called sovereign citizen movement, considered by the FBI as the leading domestic terrorism threat. But then Cliven Bundy inconveniently noted during one of his serial rants that blacks would be better off as slaves. Oops! Conservative pols dropped him like a hot potato, and he soon changed his political affiliation from the Republican Party to the ultra-right wing Independent American Party.

Once burned, twice cautious, Republican president candidates are sending mixed "We're with them" messages with qualifiers on the Oregon standoff. But because the Bundys and their ilk are white Christians, they can't be terrorists even if their protest is at point of gun.

These pols should be ashamed that the Extremism and Radicalization Branch of the Department of Homeland Security, tasked with tracking domestic terrorists, was quietly dismantled after drawing fierce criticism from Republicans and the conservative media five years ago. The antigovernment militia movement, which grew explosively after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, now includes 276 groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, up from 202 in 2014.

Members of the Pacific Patriots Network, a consortium of groups from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, arrived at the refuge on Saturday carrying rifles and sidearms and clad in military attire and bulletproof vests, bringing even more firepower to the standoff.

But just don't call 'em terrorists, okay?

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