Malheur

I was more dismayed than surprised by the verdict last week against the Bundy Gang and their “occupation” of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. I think the prosecutors were over-ambitious, trying to push conspiracy charges, and that blew up in their faces. I think that Bundy and his minions did indeed conspire, but that sort of thing is hard to prove. How do you make it clear to a jury what was in someone’s mind, especially if they get to tell the jury their own version? And even if the feds had stayed with lesser, easier-to-prove, more concrete charges, it seems to me they also misread their jury pool, in which case it might not have mattered.

What dismays me is this idea that these people engaged in “civil disobedience.” Sorry, when you carry guns it is not civil disobedience. Martin Luther King and the civil rights protesters were unarmed. So were the Indians under Gandhi fighting for independence from Britain. Bundy claimed they were armed because they might get arrested if they weren’t. In fact, one of them was shot and killed by officers because he was armed and resisted arrest! King and Gandhi expected to be arrested. They expected their fellows to be arrested as well, and they wanted to use the courts to make their cases to the people. Bundy & Co. seemed to think that waving guns around was the way to make their case. Interestingly, that tactic failed. Few people rallied to their side as their behavior, with its implicit threat of violence, was indefensible.

The irony of course is that they did make their case and they made it in court. They swayed the jury with their arguments. The gun-toting was a sideshow, albeit one that plays well in rural areas. Put on a plaid coat and a ten-gallon hat and you need a rifle or pistol to complete the ensemble. Here in the West we live under the very large shadow of The Cowboy. Not actual cowboys, but the mythical cowboy of Western Tall Tales. The John Wayne Cowboy, if you will. Those myths make wonderful theater, but they make lousy public policy.

Many millions of Americans enjoy National Parks, National Monuments, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas. In these places things like mining, logging, and grazing are either forbidden or restricted. For many rural Westerners, the idea of “empty” land that isn’t “in production” is an anathema. Bundy and his people see miles of sagebrush and think “livestock.” To them, the land has no value if it isn’t creating some kind of crop. Fortunately many other citizens realize that not all values have dollar signs on them. Open space, protection of native species, recreation, and the more intangible values of wild lands are of enormous importance to the nation.

Certainly land use is a difficult issue. I have no problem with people who think the government is doing a lousy job with resource management. It’s tough work trying to marry science with politics and craft effective plans to meet the needs of the country. Plenty of folks have complaints—legitimate ones—about decisions made in Washington or Sacramento and their impacts on local economies. That dynamic is not going to change. There will always be conflicts over the best way to utilize our natural resources. But those conflicts aren’t going to be settled by gangs with guns. Those tactics will, in fact, make the conflicts worse. Our political system has its failings, but I’m having a hard time finding one out there that works better. It’s an issue of balance and tipping the scale by threatening to shoot somebody does not build the consensus needed to make progress. And there is no evidence that “local control” (turning federal lands back to the states, for example) will make things better. It’s a truism in the rural West that only the feds can fuck up, that we locals know what’s best. Unfortunately, the same tug-of-war between opposing interests will still exist. And I hate to say it but people are the same everywhere, subject to the same biases, and have an equal chance, regardless of where they are from, to be petty, short-sighted, or foolish.

So I’m dismayed by Bundyism. It’s a stupid way to make a point. And the armed seizure of a facility is not patriotic but childish. Strapping on weapons is very exciting and all, but the message sent is “do it my way or I shoot.” Really? That’s how we will grow and improve as a nation? For the record, I have no issue with the Second Amendment or citizens owning guns. I do have an issue with being threatened with violence if I disagree with you. This is a nation of laws. Breaking them to make a political statement is OK by me but if King and Gandhi were willing to go to jail for their beliefs than so should everyone else. They not only preached non-violence, they lived it. What’s amazing is that their non-violent methods worked even though both were killed by an assassin’s bullet.

You don’t like things the way they are? Fine. But build something better before you try to tear down what already exists. You disagree with public policy? Get in line. And then get to work. Real political change takes lots of difficult, boring, thankless work. And get people on your side—I don’t mean preach to the choir. We can all do that now on Facebook. I mean work to win over people that feel differently than you do. Start by finding common ground with them. Clearly lots of folks in the West want to see change. But if they get it with their guns they have to stay on watch 24/7 because some other bunch of assholes with more and better guns will be ready for that moment when they blink. That’s no way to build world for all of us to live in, is it?