Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is a scofflaw with screwy ideas about the Constitution, and the armed oddballs who have joined his skirmish with the Bureau of Land Management are a nutty vanguard of the deluded conspiracy-mongers who dominate the far right wing in American politics. Given their actions, they do not deserve to be called patriots, but neither are they terrorists.
They have been characterized as both. Appearing together on a TV news show, Nevada's two U.S. senators disagreed about the nature of the armed men who scared off federal agents as they attempted to confiscate Bundy's cattle. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, called them "domestic terrorists." In response, Republican Sen. Dean Heller said, "What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots."
Reid went too far. The two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were terrorists. The anti-government militants who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City were terrorists. The neo-Confederates itching for a fight with the BLM are just amped-up rednecks with visions of glory and too much talk radio in their brains.
But Heller is wrong too. The guys with guns are not patriots. They, like Bundy, are lawbreakers. In most parts of the country -- particularly in non-white neighborhoods – anyone pointing an automatic weapon at a policeman will quickly find himself in jail, if he isn't shot down first. Bundy's so-called militia set up a picket line on a freeway overpass and aimed AR-15s and AK-47s at federal agents. They got away with it and are now gloating about their "victory."
These self-styled militiamen claim to be defending liberty. What they are really supporting is Bundy's freedom to ignore court rulings that say he owes more than $1.1 million in grazing fees that he has refused to pay, even as his cattle have eaten their fill on BLM land for two decades. Why does he think he, unlike 16,000 other ranchers in the West, should not have to pay his share? Because, Bundy says, his family worked the public land in question long before the feds showed up with their rules and regulations.
Besides, he really doesn't recognize federal jurisdiction over much of anything. He is one of those cranks who subscribe to the political theory that the only public official with any legitimate authority is the county sheriff. Luckily, in the America that most of us live in, people do not get to make up fairy tales to justify a refusal to follow the law. We have a Constitution, courts, legislative bodies and civilized procedures for setting rules and changing the ones we do not like.
Admittedly, the BLM was not smart to send in armed men to collect on an overdue tax bill; they just played into the paranoia on the right. They gave Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and even crazier right-wing blowhards an irresistible opportunity to foment hysteria about big government. But, if the preachers of radical libertarianism believe that the federal government has no legitimate right to manage rangelands on behalf of the public, are they willing to follow that logic back to the 19th century? Should the federal Homestead Act be ruled invalid? Should the appropriation of lands enforced by the United States Cavalry be repudiated?