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In PR Terms, Standoff Is Over

Had the FBI and other federal agencies not been deeply embarrassed and widely criticized for their handling of armed extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 it’s almost certain that the siege of the “freemen” compound near Jordan, Mont., would have been wrapped up some time ago. Instead, the effort to force the surrender of a number of those in the compound who are wanted for fraud and other common felonies is now in its 11th week, with no sign that the anti-government freemen have any interest in giving themselves up.

At some point the compelling need to assert the rule of law--along with the mounting costs to the government of maintaining the standoff--could force an armed move by the FBI. Meanwhile, the bureau’s strategy has been to let the freemen isolate themselves from nearly all who once shared some of their peculiar views on the nature of patriotism and the obligations of citizenship. The freemen may plan to seek martyrdom through conflict. But their own duplicitous and irrational behavior has now repelled most of those who once might have been moved to celebrate their sacrifice or inspired to try to avenge it.

The FBI has wisely allowed a number of sympathetic intermediaries to meet at length with the freemen. Out of those sometimes heated talks has come the realization, in the words of some of these interlocutors, that “what they [freemen] were doing was fraud,” that “they’re just scam artists,” that--a revelation, surely--"we’re not dealing with honorable people here.” The freemen, in short, have been exposed even to those who were once kindred spirits as too extreme in their beliefs, too nutty in their delusions, too dishonest in their dealings to be trusted or supported.

The FBI, then, seems clearly to have won the public relations contest with the freemen. If force must be used, the way will have been prepared for a large measure of understanding and even backing for what the government does. What stays the government’s hand is the presence among the 21 people on the freemen ranch of several children and others who have not freely chosen to have their lives put at risk. Onetime sympathizers accuse the most militant among the freemen of cowardice for hiding behind these de facto hostages. That has long been apparent to everyone else. It’s one of the tactics that defines terrorism, and it’s another reason why terrorism in Montana or anywhere else can never be compromised with.

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