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How good government made fools of Cliven Bundy and his self-styled revolutionaries

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Federal authorities faced intense criticism after backing down from their confrontation with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the rag-tag army of heavily-armed anti-government extremists who flocked to his cause in 2014. The feds’ cautious approach may have averted a bloodbath – they were outnumbered four-to-one — but it was also widely seen as having encouraged the self-styled revolutionaries to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for forty days this year. A 2014 analysis by the Department of Homeland Security concluded that members of the militia movement viewed the Bundy Ranch debacle as “a defining victory over government oppression.”

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It was clear from the rambling communiques they livestreamed from rural Oregon that the group anticipated a violent reaction to the occupation by the federal government. If they weren’t seeking martyrdom exactly, at the very least they wanted to provoke a stark display of force – to show the world images of jack-booted FBI tactical teams storming the compound. Such a move might have lent credence to their claim that we face a tyrannical, out-of-control government.

They weren’t the only ones who wanted to turn the animosity many ranchers in the West harbor toward federal land management into a broader indictment of the legitimacy of the government’s limits on the extraction of natural resources on public lands. Last week, Jenny Rowland and Matt Lee-Ashley reported for Think Progress that “the political network of the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch signaled… that it is expanding its financial and organizational support for a coalition of anti-government activists and militants who are working to seize and sell America’s national forests, monuments, and other public lands.”

But the standoff didn’t go according to plan for the Bundys, their grassroots followers or their benefactors in the energy, mining and lumber businesses. In the end, good governance made them look foolish. Federal authorities learned something from the bloody outcomes of earlier standoffs – in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the 1990s – and from the Bundy Ranch episode in 2014. And they applied those lessons in Oregon.

The FBI showed patience and restraint. They gave the occupiers ample opportunity to alienate the local community. Many locals reportedly became hostile toward the stunt despite agreeing with the occupiers about the sentencing of two local ranchers on arson charges. Federal authorities left the lights on and allowed them a platform to demonstrate the incoherence of their mishmash of grievances. They bided their time until an opportunity presented itself to arrest of the group’s leaders on a remote Oregon highway. They then slowly tightened the noose on the remaining holdouts, allowing them to ramble on about abortion, marijuana prohibition and a government cover-up of aliens at Area 51.

In the final hours, as negotiators talked the last few holdouts into surrendering on a live-streamed telephone call, only someone deeply indoctrinated in anti-government ideology could fail to see the FBI as calm and professional, while the occupiers displayed clinical levels of paranoia. The last four militants were convinced that they would be cut down in a hail of gunfire the moment they stepped outside the door, but it was clear that all they had to do to avoid harm was leave their weapons behind and walk out, which is what ultimately happened.

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And other than Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who maintained his vow to never be taken alive, and a minor wound suffered by Ryan Bundy, the FBI ended the standoff without bloodshed. Federal attorneys even showed restraint in charging the group. Twenty-five of the Malheur occupiers were indicted on a single felony charge of conspiring to impede officers of the US government through the use of force. They face up to six years in prison if convicted. (Another occupier was arrested on unrelated charges.)

Cliven Bundy, detained as he arrived in Oregon, also sits in jail, but two years after he started this mess, they threw the book at him. He was charged with six counts related to the 2014 standoff that began with his refusal to pay grazing fees for his cattle. They include assault on a federal law enforcement officer, the use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime, obstruction of justice and interfering with commerce through extortion. If convicted on all charges, Cliven Bundy could be sentenced for up to 47 years – a potential life sentence for the 69-year-old rancher.

Bundy and his supporters went up against a government that they saw as venal, incompetent and overbearing – one that had utter disregard for citizens’ safety and civil rights. But they were met by a government that had thought through all the angles, learned from its past mistakes and gave them enough rope to hang themselves. In the end, good governance didn’t just defuse the situation and bring a couple of dozen criminal reactionaries to justice. In the process, it utterly discredited their entire worldview.

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