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Monday, July 24, 2017

Out here on the edge of the National Forest, in the cattle-ranching, timber-cutting, deer-hunting county where I live, this Ammon Bundy guy looks like the Al Sharpton of cows. His publicity seeking has created a media pseudo-event of a particularly modern kind.

Can anybody doubt that the feds could more efficiently resolve standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by confiscating TV cameras rather than guns?

Actually there’s no real “standoff,” since law enforcement is nowhere in sight. Blocking the roads, cutting the power, and waiting them out looks like the wisest policy, although there appear to be almost as many tribal ideologues on the left hankering for a shootout as anti-government militia types.

Washington Monthly’s normally sensible David Atkins is breathing smoke and fire: “I feel that if Bundy’s little crew wants to occupy a federal building and assert that they’ll use deadly violence against any police who try to extract them,” he wrote “then they should get what they’re asking for just as surely Islamist terrorists would if they did likewise…”

“What’s good for one type of terrorist must also be good for another,” Atkins continued.

Sounds downright Trump-like to me. Elsewhere, racialized insults and cries for vengeance have become common. “Y’all-qaeda,” “yee-hawdists,” “yokel haram,” tweeted New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz. Less witty ridicule is everywhere.

At Salon, Bundy’s cowboy patriots are denounced as a “strident example of unapologetic white privilege in action.”

Salon thinks that “They’d be killed if they were black: The racial double standard at the heart of the new Bundy family standoff.”

“Armed white men seize a federal building. The government stands down carefully. But a 12-year-old with a toy gun?” reads the sub-hed.

Even Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson couldn’t resist making the tempting, but specious comparison between Bundy and Tamir Rice, the Cleveland child killed by cops in a city park. Think harder. Everybody acknowledges the boy’s death was a pointless tragedy. Nobody wanted him to die.

It’s also clearly false that armed white crackpots are always given a pass. Heard of Ruby Ridge? Waco? But hold that thought.

Robinson does acknowledge the single most salient fact: that Bundy’s posse is holed-up deep in the Oregon wilderness, thirty miles from a town of 2800, a threat to nobody but each other. The last thing the US government needs to do is give them the martyrdom a few of the crazier ones crave.

Then too, as a political matter, Bundy appears to have made an almost comical miscalculation. Hardly anybody in remote Harney County appears to support his cause. Even the father-son team of ranchers who reported on schedule to begin serving five year prison terms Bundy’s group is allegedly protesting have renounced his support.

Dwight and Steve Hammond did plead guilty to arson, you know.

In a press conference, county Sheriff David Ward addressed the anti-government vigilantes directly: “To the people at the wildlife refuge: You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation. The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully.”

Which is not to say those sentences are either just or equitable. Even among their neighbors, opinions differ. Five years seems like an awfully long time for torching 139 acres of sagebrush and juniper—particularly given Dwight Hammond’s age, 73.

The sentencing judge thought so too, refusing to enforce the mandatory minimum as unconstitutionally severe. After prosecutors objected, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco imposed the statutory penalty. Indeed, the Hammonds’ legal appeals are not complete, making the timing of Bundy’s insurrection inconvenient at best.

Detailed accounts in local media make the entire affair sound like a high desert version of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey’s manic epic about a western Oregon logging clan. Some stress the Hammond family’s business success and generous support of local charities.

Trial records, however, also make it appear that as wealthy ranchers are prone to do, the Hammonds had taken to acting dictatorially. No doubt Bureau of Land Management bureaucracy can be maddening, but renting grazing rights on government land doesn’t convey the freedom of action a rancher has on his own property.

For the past 20 years, the Hammonds have taken to confronting hunters killing “their” deer on federal land, and threatening U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents over water and fencing disputes. According to a 2010 grand jury indictment, “Hammond family members have been responsible for multiple fires” for more than 20 years. The indictment also alleged that one fire was set to destroy evidence of deer poaching — animals killed not for meat but because they competed with cattle for forage.

If true, the wonder is that they got away with it so long.

Photo: Ammon Bundy departs after addressing the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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