The takeover of the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon by armed anti-federal-government zealots might seem like a fresh crisis, but in fact we've been here before. The best option for the government is to practice patient resolve — and have lots of handcuffs ready once the occupation comes to a peaceful end.
The gun toters holed up at Malheur haven't issued a political manifesto, but their rhetoric echoes that of movements such as the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which disaffected westerners argued that states or counties are the rightful owners of millions of acres of federal land, despite decades of court battles that say otherwise. Three of the occupiers also are sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who, with a contingent of armed supporters, faced down an effort by the Bureau of Land Management nearly two years ago to seize his cattle for nonpayment of grazing fees — a bill that remains unpaid.
The Bundy brigade decamped to Oregon recently to join protests over the re-sentencing of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven. Their crimes: burning more than 140 acres of federal land adjacent to their ranch in two separate incidents. The government appealed the Hammonds' initial sentence of a few months in prison, winning the argument that federal law mandates a five-year term. Although the Hammonds have acquiesced, the Bundys and their followers seized the opportunity, and federal property, to make a grand and unacceptable show of force and disregard for the law.
The good news is that the Malheur refuge, near Burns in the high desert of eastern Oregon, is remote, and the occupiers pose no imminent public safety threat. Some critics have sought to contrast the government's measured response with the quick-trigger killing of Tamir Rice, an unarmed, black 12-year-old, by a Cleveland police officer, but it is difficult to compare a police encounter in a populated area with what's happening in Oregon. Nor is the 2011 Occupy Movement a good analogy because those protesters were unarmed. Malheur also differs from federal showdowns in 1992 with anti-government activists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in 1993 with the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, both of which involved disastrous violence.
A closer parallel would be the American Indian Movement's unarmed takeover of the federal landmark of Alcatraz Island, which began in November 1969 and ended, peacefully, 19 months later. Similar restraint leading to a bloodless surrender would be the best outcome here, with the Obama administration pledging to prosecute the occupiers under all applicable laws. Political protest is a welcome part of American life. Armed occupation of public lands by private citizens is another matter entirely.