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Nearly 25 years ago, on Feb. 28, 1993, preacher David Koresh and his 125 live-in congregants, the “Branch Davidians,” exchanged fire outside Waco with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Six of their number and four ATFers were felled. After encircling it for 51 days, the FBI assaulted the Davidian compound, Mt. Carmel, with volatile CS gas and Army tanks, leading to a fire that took more than 80 lives, including those of two dozen children. In retribution for their deaths, thinking that his action would spark a revolution, “patriot” Timothy McVeigh on April 19, 1995 planted a fertilizer bomb at the curbside of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168; again, some of the victims were toddlers. In anybody’s book, all of that was tragedy.
But today’s standoff by armed “patriots,” “Constitutionalists” and “sovereign citizens” outside Burns, Ore., will most likely be in accord with Marx’s dictum that history first presents itself as tragedy—and then as farce.
The practices and preconditions for another bloodbath are simply not present at the Malhueur National Wildlife Refuge, where a dozen buildings have been seized by a group that calls itself a militia.
The apparent organizers of the occupation are Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven Bundy, who with a little help from his friends held federal forces at bay in Nevada in April, 2014. Ammon Bundy has proclaimed that “I know the Lord is involved” in the Oregon occupation, but neither he nor his brother, like Koresh, is a guru of a passionate church. Their accomplices are not in agreement about God, without whose blessing, it seems, few members of our species are today prepared to face martyrdom.
At this early stage of the standoff, not all of the parties on either side fully comprehend their strengths, their weaknesses, the roles that the standoff will require them to play. Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward did nobody a favor by accusing the Bundy Bunch of aiming to “overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
His mistake is taking the patriot types at their word. Inspiring a right-wing uprising has been tried, and it failed. In the wake of the Waco incident, militiamen everywhere called for revolution but only three of them type took any a memorable action—Timothy McVeigh and two accomplishes. McVeigh’s henchmen went to prison; he accepted capital punishment.
The proverbial “shot heard round the world” that McVeigh thought he was firing did not echo, in part because the FBI promptly knocked on the doors of almost every militiaman in Oklahoma and North Texas. Though six months earlier they had described themselves as “revolutionaries,” with G-men on their doorsteps most of them decided that they were loyal Americans instead. Six months later the region’s militias were mainly teaching their troops how to prepare for tornadoes and other natural disasters. Within eighteen months, they were marching in Fourth of July parades!
The Waco affair ended badly because the ATF and FBI didn’t understand how to manage the situation. They held joint daily press conferences at which agency spokesmen ridiculed and slandered Koresh and his flock. The result was that the lawmen stirred up a national lynch mood: polls showed that the public wanted the federal officers to march on Koresh and his “cult.”
The FBI also cordoned Mt. Carmel, forbidding even visits by blood relatives of those inside. The message that most of the kinfolk wanted to bear was simple: I don’t care what you think the Bible says, you are my child and it will break my heart if you die here.
Though the ATF and FBI never admitted to any errors, when a group of “Christian sovereign citizens,” the Montana Freemen, got themselves into an 81-day standoff in 1996, the FBI showed a reformed behavior. It did not hold daily press conferences, and it permitted family visitations. The Bureau also allowed a “Constitutionalist” lawyer, Kirk Lyons—whom it had spurned at Waco—to counsel the Freemen. He told them that their legal theories were hogwash as far as the courts were concerned—and persuaded them to surrender and go to prison.
If the FBI is patient, the Oregon rebels will probably give up their cause in time to watch the Superbowl as propriety requires, on big-screen TVs–chicken wings, not weapons, at the ready.