With the Cliven Bundy standoff retreating from the headlines, it is time to return to my ongoing series on guns, the Second Amendment, and armed rebellion. What is remarkable and disturbing about this latest incident is not that there was an armed standoff between the federal government and the militia movement, or that the government backed down without bloodshed, but the amount of mainstream support the militia types received during the ongoing showdown. This is something new.
At Ruby Ridge, the FBI and ATF were shocked at the amount of support a white supremacist facing firearms charges received, and the extent of a nascent militia movement supporting him. But mainstream conservatives stayed well away. When the FBI and ATF first began besieging the Branch Davidians, talk was becoming popular in some circles about the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to stockpile a large private arsenal to wage war on the federal government, and quite probably to start shooting if they tried to shut it down. But when such a thing happened, there was no initial outburst of support from gun culture. Only later did the "Patriot" movement adopt the Branch Davidians as their own.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they began an investigation of both incidents and found much, quite legitimately, to criticize. They found many ways that the FBI and ATF could have handled both sieges better and without bloodshed. But what they did not find was that law-abiding citizens were being unfairly persecuted just for exercising their rights to wage war on the Federal Government. In fact, they ultimately decided that, although they had many tactical criticisms, they supported the ultimate decision to shut both groups down since they were, after all, preparing to wage war on the Federal Government.
The Montana Freemen in 1996 were a different story. In this case, the FBI had learned its (tactical) lessons from the previous experiences and avoided a shootout. Instead they backed off, but pinned the Freemen in and eventually negotiated their surrender. Once again, there was no great outpouring of mainstream support. Militia-type Bo Gritz attempted to negotiate an end to the siege but ended up giving up, saying that the Freemen were too nutty for him. And if they were too nutty for Bo Gritz, we may safety assume they were too nutty for Rush Limbaugh and Republican politicians. (Fox New had not yet begun broadcasting).
In 2000, of course, a Republican was elected President, and in 2001 Islamists destroyed the World Trade Center, and suddenly waging war on the Federal Government stopped looking patriotic.
Well, once again, a Democrat is in the White House, and armed rebellion against the federal government is once again patriotic. Clive Bundy had been grazing his cattle on federal land for 20 years without paying grazing fees, and when the Bureau of Land Management came to confiscate them, he called out the militia movement to resist. And this, time, mainstream conservatives, including five members of the Arizona legislature, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller, and, of course, Sean Hannity on Fox News. Of course, all of these deserted him when Bundy began making racially questionable remarks. And attempts to give these remarks more "context" are unlikely to make much difference -- our sensitivity on race is such that anything that might be perceived as insensitive is deadly.
But then again, as this segment points out, it was an open secret that Clive Bundy and his friends had some very radical views even apart from their views on race -- such as the view that the Federal Government was barred by the Constitution from holding any land at all except for military bases, that it had no legitimate law enforcement powers and, indeed, that the Federal Government could not legitimately exist at all! It is possible, I suppose, that Fox News types and some of our more libertarian Republican politicians believe that it is illegitimate for the Federal Government to hold land, that our National Parks should be turned over to the states to manage, and other federal land auctioned off to ranchers, timber companies, and mining companies. But I doubt that any of them would deny the Federal Government law enforcement powers (what, no one to hunt down terrorists!), much less deny its legitimacy altogether, even if a Democrat is in the White House.
Confronted with Bundy's radical views, the usual response on the mainstream right has been that of course, they do not agree with them, but they are concerned about the heavy-handed, "paramilitary" approach of the BLM. They have a legitimate point there. The militarization of our police forces is, indeed, worrisome. Opposing it with private paramilitaries is also worrisome. But surely it is no coincidence that the right wing did not get seriously worked up about this militarization until one of their own was the target. Consider the appalling militarization of the police that has taken place in the context of the War on Drugs. I am not aware of Fox News being one of its leading critics. But even assuming it has, suppose some drug dealer adopted the theory, not only that federal bans on drugs are unconstitutional (some libertarians hold that view, but that the Federal Government has no law enforcement powers whatever, that its existence is illegitimate and, that if it tries to flex its muscle, he has the constitutional right to offer it armed resistance and possibly start a violent revolution against it -- wouldn't such a view be seen as alarming to most mainstream conservatives, even ones who are pretty hard core? And wouldn't they, after all, be right to be alarmed?