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Terrorism, American Style

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As the popularity of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and other race-baiting antidemocratic politicians attest, a significant portion of the American public is hostile to Washington, whether with respect to expansion of civil liberties and human rights, taxation, immigration policy, or diplomacy.  This part of the public wants a strong, no-nonsense leader who will take them out of the cultural and political wilderness, and restore to them (mainly meaning to white male America) the respect and power it once supposedly had (and supposedly deserves).  A subset of this public consists of gun lovers (again, all white males) who live by conspiracy theories, a distorted notion of the Constitution and the Bible, and a craving for violent action against authority.  They are our terrorists.

We in America thus must deal with the unfortunate fact that domestic terrorism is becoming a serious national security threat, greatly helped by the provocative rhetoric of the leading Republican presidential candidates.  Since 9/11, “non-Islamic extremists” actually account for more lives lost than “Islamic extremists,” by 48 to 45.  Yet, this predominantly white, male, Christian terrorism invariably escapes being labeled as such.  Instead, the mass media uses more polite language, such as “militia men” and “armed activists”—words that probably would not be applied if the terrorists were American Indians, African Americans, Jews, or of course Muslims. As Janell Ross writesin the Washington Post, “The descriptions of events in Oregon appear to reflect the usual shape of our collective assumptions about the relationship between race and guilt—or religion and violent extremism—in the United States.”

Which brings me to the current situation in rural Oregon’s Malheur National Forest Refuge.  A small group of self-styled “militia” seems to think that an armed occupation is the only alternative when complaints against government are not satisfactorily addressed.  But that is nonsense: peaceful protest, passive resistance, elections, petitions, and recalls are all available.  Four years ago, when the Occupy movement was in thrall, peaceful sit-ins were the norm, not armed invasion, seizure of buildings, and declarations of self-rule. The current Oregon situation in fact was preceded by a peaceful protest against federal regulation of ranch land, only to have the “militia” preempt it to serve its own needs.  Its leaders never bothered to ask the Hammond family, on whose behalf the extremists says they are acting, if it wanted their support.  The extremists’ action is reminiscent of various US interventions abroad that have occurred without a request for it by local authorities or indigenous groups claiming oppression.

The so-called militia in Oregon is armed and dangerous.  These people have been spoiling for a fight and, while preaching peaceful intentions, seem to welcome doing battle with government officials.  Its leaders speak the language of millenarian groups: referring to loyalty to a higher power, professing to act on behalf of “the people,” vowing violence only if provoked.  This is the familiar language of terror groups which, while to some degree reflecting a larger public anger, exploit it to further its own ambitions.  The Oregon group would like nothing better than to be joined by more far-right antigovernment outfits as a means of self-justification.  It’s a microcosm of the ISIS end-of-days perspective.

Local and federal law enforcement will need to confront these people at some point, hopefully with Waco and Ruby Ridge in mind and therefore without violence.  There are plenty of options, including cutting off the group’s water, power, and telephone to isolate it.  A negotiated solution also seems possible, one that trades the group’s willingness to end its occupation in return for no prosecution.  The federal authorities also might consider reducing the sentences of the two Hammond family members who have been returned to jail.  Their five-year sentences do seem excessive, for range-fire arsonists.  A sentence reduction would calm public resentment in that county and take the ground out from under the terrorists.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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