What’s Going on in Oregon? Domestic Terrorism in the Beaver State
As people recovered from New Year’s Eve and went back to work, attention returned to the challenges facing the United States, from Russia to the Middle East. However, while Americans continue to fret over ISIS sleeper cells, an armed, anti-government group occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon. While the group’s specific demands remain unclear, this type of armed insurrection is nothing new in the United States. Starting with the nation’s inception to the present, with several high-profile cases in the 1990s, anti-government rhetoric and militia type groups have been and remain a major issue. This article will look at the specifics of this incident, the history of these types of groups, similar organizations, and the impact all this has on the United States.
A Wildlife Refuge under Siege
The catalyst for this most recent incident was the conviction of father and son ranchers, the Hammonds, on charges of arson on government land. While they claimed to be merely clearing dangerously flammable brush and invasive species, the pair was convicted of starting the fire to cover up poaching activities in 2001. Although the two men turned themselves in and ended up receiving the minimum sentence for the crime they were convicted of, this was not enough to stem the controversy that has since ensued.
In response, a group led by Ammon Bundy, whose father led a similar stand-off against the government in 2014, held a rally and protest, then seized control of a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The group, now dubbing itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, has remained in the buildings, which were unoccupied, since the night of January 2. While the group’s demands are still unclear, their complaints seem to center on people having greater access to federal land and the release of the convicted ranchers.
While their exact motivation also remains uncertain, what is clear is that Citizens for Constitutional Freedom is not the first group of its kind. While the group has had previous run-ins with the government, movements protesting federal control of land have roots that go back decades, even centuries. For much of that time, the debate has been between those who wish to conserve areas and those who wish to utilize the land for resources. In the 1970s and 80s the idea that the land should be controlled locally gathered steam and became what has been dubbed the Sagebrush Rebellion.
That movement’s primary complaint–and one of the complaints offered by the group in Oregon–is that the government controls too much land and is not using it appropriately. While the methods being used by the Bundy family are certainly illegal, the protesters may have a point. In total, the government owns roughly one-third of all land in the United States and 53.1 percent of the land in Oregon respectively. Regardless of the validity of these claims, the Oregon group’s inability to articulate its specific complaints have made dealing with it a challenge. This challenge is only exacerbated by how the group is viewed and portrayed by different people and organizations.
What Do We Call Them?
Much of the debate over this group and why they are protesting concerns how they should be classified. More specifically, is this domestic terrorism? While many people were quick to denounce the group’s tactics as unpatriotic, there was a noticeable lack of coverage and condemnation of their methods. In fact, many argue that the media coverage of the occupation–which some have even called a peaceful protest–is unfair and biased. Critics contrast the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom’s efforts with other protests, such as the ones in Baltimore and Ferguson, which were called riots and met with armed confrontation from authorities.
So what is this group, then? They are clearly protesters speaking out against something they view as unfair. But the presence of weapons and their vague demands over land use rights, freeing the Hammonds, and fighting against government intimidation appears to make them something more. In fact, the group’s actions do seem to fall more in line with the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism, which includes any action that is “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” The key to identifying this group then ultimately appears to rest with their intent. Since their actions appear to be based on specific perceived injustices and are tied to specific demands, we can differentiate them from mere protesters.
For context, other examples of the importance of intent in defining an act as terrorism concern two of America’s most recent and deadly shootings. In the case of Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza’s actions were not technically domestic terrorism because there was no ideological intent aside from killing; whereas the shootings by Dylann Roof at a Charleston Church were an act of terrorism as the intent was racially and politically motivated. In other words, although the occupiers in Oregon have not yet used force, the threat of force remains and when you couple that with their intentions they appear to be domestic terrorists. For greater clarity the accompanying video gives another voice to the domestic terrorist debate:
Militia Groups in the United States
Historically, one of the primary perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States has been militia groups. Like the definition of terrorism, the definition of a militia is also vague. The general consensus is that a militia is an irregular military force made up of citizens that are called upon only in the event of an emergency. Once again the protesters in Oregon do not fit neatly within this definition; however, many of them are members of a self-styled militia group known as the Patriot movement. This movement began back in the 1970s and was originally concerned with protecting the United States in the event of a foreign occupation. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the group has refocused its attention to standing up against perceived threats from the government, particularly fear of the government taking away their guns. While the protesters, or domestic terrorists, in Oregon are the latest example of this type of group, they are by no means the only one.
In fact, the number of anti-government groups has mushroomed since 2008, coinciding with the election of President Obama. The number of these groups went from 149 that year to an estimated 1,360 groups by 2012 according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Again, the extent of the threat that these groups actually pose is up for debate. Some counter that their numbers and danger are overblown by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who compiled the numbers as means of drumming up donations. However, others view them as a far more serious concern. The Southern Poverty Law Center also notes that during the 1990s only 858 such groups were identified, almost 500 less than 2012. Even with population growth factored in, that level of increase is concerning. It is especially troubling given the number of high-profile conflicts between the government and anti-government groups during the 1990s.
History of Discontent
The 1990s were a time of numerous conflicts between the government and anti-government groups. The government standoffs and civilian deaths at Ruby Ridge and Waco raised the specter of government repression, especially among militia-type groups. This culminated with the Oklahoma City Bombing, which left 168 people dead when an anti-government sympathizer blew up a government building. While this attack greatly reduced support for militia groups, particularly for the Patriot movement, it was certainly not the end of the violence or domestic terrorism.
In fact, the American Prospect compiled a list of bombings from 1867 to the present. The list includes attacks from anti-war groups, anarchists, foreign separatists, lone wolfs, and the Boston Bombers to name just a few. In addition to bombings, mass shootings in the United States also involve an element of domestic terrorism, such as the recent San Bernardino shooting.
Currently, the protestors in Oregon have stated that they will only resort to violence if forced into a confrontation by authorities. So far, the authorities have aired on the side of caution, letting the group be in an effort to wait for the occupation out.
Even if the protesters in Oregon leave peacefully, the threat of right-wing militias remains. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum last year, the number one threat identified was these militia-style groups, even relative to the threat of foreign terrorism from groups like Al-Qaeda. The protesters’ biggest impact may come in the form of shedding greater light on these groups. The following video gives a look at the militia movement in the United States:
As of right now, much of what is going on in Oregon remains unclear. Even how the group should be classified is debated; are they protesters, terrorists, a militia, or something else? About the only thing that is clear is that what they are doing is unpopular. Already the town has come together and asked them to leave. The Paiute Indian Tribe, which can trace its lineage to the area back 9,000 years, believes they have no legitimate complaint and they should leave. Even the Hammonds–the two men convicted of the crime that supposedly sparked the protest–have distanced themselves from the protesters.
While the debate rages over how to treat them, the specter of FBI assaults on seemingly similar groups in the 1990s lingers. Additionally, figuring out how to deal with groups like these takes on ever-increasing importance as their numbers swell and they become increasingly well-armed.
As of right now, it is too early to know exactly how the events will ultimately unfold in Oregon. In all likelihood the protesters will run out of steam, most will likely leave and the masterminds, such as Ammon Bundy, will be held accountable. It could also go the other way if cooler heads do not prevail.