Oregon militia verdict feeds the politics of extremism

OR: Oregon Standoff Defendants Found Not Guilty

Nick Fisher rides his horse, Lady Liberty as Oregon standoff supporters celebrate outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland, Ore.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election of 2016, America is and will remain divided.

One candidate has refused to say whether he’ll abide by the election results, the same candidate who has claimed the election is rigged, the polls are rigged, the media are rigged. He represents a party that has used its power in Congress to relentlessly investigate and undermine the legitimacy of the Obama administration. Others have promised to do the same to Hillary Clinton, promising years of investigations before she has even been elected.

And Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently said that the Senate was within its rights to effectively kill off the Supreme Court — or let it die off — if its members don’t like the president doing the nominating. That’s an outright assault on the judicial branch.

A former congressmen tweeted this week that in the event of a Clinton victory, he would grab his “musket,” suggesting that an election outcome he disagreed with would be met with armed insurrection. He asked if others were “in” on the idea — to “take our country back” from whoever “took” it from us. Like the government, or liberals, or people of color.

Trump's followers, too, have warned that there will be violence if he loses.

It used to be that taking up arms against the government was treason or at the very least a crime. It has now been twisted by the far right into one’s patriotic duty. Bernie Sanders calls for a “political” revolution. The far right calls for a violent one.

That interpretation got a boost on Thursday with the outcome of a federal trial in Portland which found the armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Southern Oregon to be innocent of conspiracy and gun charges. Ammon and Ryan Bundy and a group of armed followers took over refuge headquarters for 41 days last winter.

Odd that folks who are openly rebelling against federal authority have been protected by it, but that is our system of justice, the one the occupiers hold in contempt. They view the federal government’s ownership of land outside of the nation’s capitol to be illegal and demand that federal lands be returned to the states and counties for exploitation. The federal government itself is illegitimate, they contend, while waving the flag that represents it.

The Malheur victory is a stunner, but also bodes ill for the safety and future of federal lands if armed occupiers and vandals can hold such places hostage, boast and broadcast their crimes, and remain unpunished. If nothing else, rather than restoring the faith of those charged with the fairness of the justice system it will encourage others to take extreme action against weak federal authority, a government of pushovers.

This year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park System. What are the odds it’ll reach 200? How will the parks and wilderness areas survive when surrounded by communities that embrace an ideology hostile to the very values they embody, when those who are charged with protecting them are not protected themselves by the law?

Meanwhile, extremism in the protraction of private property goes on unabated, whether it is cracking down on Native American or Black Lives Matter activists, or gunning down innocent Americans by overly entitled law enforcement officers or self-appointed guardians practicing vigilante "justice." How can the gun-toting cowboys of Malheur get away with kidnapping federal land, but Trayvon Martin is “justifiably” murdered walking home from the store?

Donald Trump recently visited the Gettysburg battlefield for a campaign speech and photo op. In his talk there, he threatened to sue the women who have come forward with accusations of unwanted sexual contact — behavior he has previously bragged about on film. He then went on to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. “President Lincoln served at a time of division like we've never seen before. It is my hope that we can look at his example to heal the divisions we are living through right now.”

Can a calculating divider become a uniter? How delusional is it that Trump believes he can demagogue on race, gender and class, yet somehow repair a house divided that he himself is sawing in half?

But it isn’t Trump alone that is splitting the country, opening old wounds and making new ones. These are sores that are long festering since that last Civil War. Lincoln freed the slaves, but grudgingly. America “healed” its wounds but in fact, given lynching, Jim Crow and the police violence and mass incarceration that have been normalized, we see how unhealed we truly are.

White America worked hard to unify itself, yet we are rife with internal contradictions: “Patriots” that hate the government, politicians who sabotage the political process, a fractured sense of where authority and justice lie.

Some have called what we’re going through a kind of Cold Civil War — Reds states vs. Blue, Urban vs. Rural, Activists vs. Electeds, Whites vs. Everyone Else. The question is, will we resolve that war in the political and public arenas, or will we see more violence, more guns, more armed standoffs, more claims of conspiracy, more efforts to delegitimize or derail democratic outcomes?

This election won’t give us an answer, but the response to it might.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.