What’s the deal with Oregon?

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What’s the deal with Oregon?

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Picture the following scenario: A group of armed terrorists seize a U.S. federal building. They issue their demands, threatening to shoot anyone who attempts to remove them, and they demonstrate an apparent willingness to die for their cause if necessary. The occupation goes on for weeks. How would the country react?
If you said that the event would briefly grab headlines, then fall from the news cycle and be largely ignored by both law enforcement and the public, people might think you were crazy. And yet, that is exactly what is happening right now.
On Jan. 2, a militia brandishing weapons seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, in protest of the federal ownership and use of land; they have been lodged there ever since. Though government officials have condemned the occupation, there has thus far been no attempt by law enforcement to remove the estimated 40 protesters that currently occupy the refuge, as they have sworn to respond with violence to any attempt to do so.
Although the situation has been going on for several weeks, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that. One reason for the relative lack of attention is the remote location of the standoff. Harney County, though the largest county in Oregon, has a population of only 7,700. In fact, with over 500 ranches, cattle outnumber people 14-to-1. The local sheriff’s department has a staff of only five law enforcement officers.
Another major reason why the confrontation has been disregarded is that it is fairly difficult to describe what is actually occurring. The protest began when two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were charged with arson for setting fires on federal land. The militia has listed the release of the Hammonds as one of their demands. But the primary issue—federal land ownership—is something that many would find nuanced, obscure and, frankly, boring. It has little impact on the lives of most Americans. But in many rural parts of the country, particularly in western states, it’s a major source of tension. For example, in Oregon and Nevada, the government owns as much as 53 and 81 percent of the total land area, respectively. As such, the government has the authority to regulate its use—which often leads to conflict with those who make their living off the land, such as hunters, loggers and ranchers.
What is happening in Oregon, however, has expanded far beyond its original scope. Whatever legitimate grievances about federal land-use policy may exist, they have been largely overshadowed by the nature of the protest and the personalities of those involved. The militia group, which refers to itself as the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom,” has framed itself as an organization of righteous “patriots” standing up to a “tyrannical” federal government. Most of the protestors aren’t even from the area. The leader and initiator of the standoff is Ammon Bundy, a rancher from Nevada. If the words “Bundy” and “standoff” sound familar, it’s because Ammon is the son of Cliven Bundy, the center of a confrontation with Bureau of Land Management in 2013.
As seriously as the group takes themselves, they’ve gotten considerably less respect from the general public. Twitter users have compared the rural ranchers to Islamic extremists, with creative hashtags referring to the group as “Y’all Qaeda,” and “Yeehaw-dists.”
Though comical, the militia group is still committing several major felonies with their continued occupation. And yet law enforcement is simply watching. Part of their reluctance to remove the protestors is a fear of escalating the violence. The memory of the disastrous 1993 Waco siege, in which 76 people died, is still fresh on many people’s minds. A similar incident would only strengthen the militia’s cause, and ensure more situations like this occur.
In this case, the government’s response isn’t cowardice, but prudence. The siege won’t last forever; the group is bound to run out of energy—or supplies—at some point. With armed militia, much like whining toddlers, sometimes the best response is to simply ignore their cries.