I admit that my first response to this news was basically Picardfacepalm.jpg. It still kind of is. But since a lot of well-meaning people have been coming at this from a race/media coverage angle, I feel like I need to get into this a little more. Basic gist: Yes, these guys are terrorists, but what they are at heart is a bunch of playground bullies showing off to try to prove how manly they are. We of course need to take them seriously, but not so seriously that we feed their fantasy that they’re noble soldiers fighting a large-scale war.
First, let’s understand who these people are, what they want, and why they took that building.
There’s a much bigger history to the “patriot” militia movement that I won’t go into right now. Basic gist, though: They’re an outgrowth of neo-confederate ideology, though these guys are a slightly different flavor than the stars-and-bars-waving crowd in the South. The core assertion is the same, though: The notion that the vast majority of the federal government is operating illegally, because states’ rights blah blah. They basically believe that the only thing the U.S. government should do is run the military (provide for the common defense.) Virtually everything else, they argue, should be left to the states.
(Of course, the hilarious part of this is that they also claim to be strict Constitutionalists when it comes to things like Second- and Fourth-Amendment rights, but when SCOTUS establishes that the rest of the Constitution also matters–and worse, also applies to people who aren’t cishet white Christians–suddenly that’s an overreach. Uh. OK, Sparky.)
In the case of this particular group, one of their key issues is the use of federally owned land (known as “BLM land” = Bureau of Land Management; not Black Lives Matter.) Most of the folks in this branch of the movement are based in the Mountain West, plus Texas and Oklahoma: Places where there isn’t a lot of arable farmland, but useful territory for ranching and mining (and gas/oil drilling, in some areas.) There’s also a similar movement in the greener parts of those states which is centered on logging. Many of the movement’s leaders and founders own some sort of ranch or mining land, and want to have a lot more of it (often because they’ve already stripped the land they own, or because they want to expand their business beyond what their land can sustain.) They see the vast tracts of federally owned land just on the other side of the fence, and decide they want it, and that it’s unfair of the government to own it when it could be “used” by citizens like themselves.
A situation like the current one, then, is based on their belief that federal conservation or other public-good uses are a waste of land that could–should–be turned over to private citizens so they can make money from it. Never mind that they already own a piece of it as taxpayers, and what the taxpayers have decided, via the citizen-based group action known as our government, is that the land shouldn’t be just torn up and turned into profit. They think they somehow already own the land privately, and should have the right to hunt, mine, graze, blah blah at will.
It seems hilarious–and it is, really–that they’re occupying a closed visitor center in the middle of the boonies. They didn’t exactly break into Fort Knox. But this is the exact sort of takeover they want to do with every piece of public land. They think things like wildlife preservation and general environmental protection are a big scam, designed only to control how much money/resources a private citizen can have. These are the climate-change deniers and the people who think it should be legal to hunt a species to extinction. They honestly either don’t think environmental disasters are possible (the religious ones, who believe God gave humans the planet to use as we will, and therefore there will always be enough of it to sustain us) or don’t care if they do happen, so long as they get to make a fortune before they die (libertarian nihilists; there are a lot of those.)
As can probably be deduced, the roots of this movement lie in part in overall economic issues. These groups first cropped up in the early ’80s, when Reaganomics started bankrupting the working class. Some of these guys are plenty rich, but many aren’t; they’re under the impression that they would be if they were just allowed to start fracking in protected wetlands. Another large root is cultural. The “every man for himself” version of idealized masculinity is rampant in these areas because they’re so sparsely populated. They usually have some level of small-community safety nets, but generally, they prefer to go it alone, as they think any free person should be able to do. When they start failing at this–as is inevitable for most, since humans are tribal creatures and thrive best in groups–they can’t handle the idea that they’re simply not capable of being entirely self-supported, and look for someone/something to blame. For these guys, it’s the government, taxes, etc. For other sorts of working-class white men it’s immigrants or women stealing jobs that somehow rightfully belong to them.
The other contributing factor, and the one that makes this movement so militarized, is the way American culture ties heroism and masculinity to war. Most of the men in this movement had fathers or grandfathers who fought in WWII, who were lauded as heroes when they returned. These guys either had only Vietnam–the disaster that was–or they were too young even for that, but too old or otherwise not fit for duty when the next big wars fired up 15 years later. The ’80s not only gutted these guys economically, but the Cold War–rather than a real one that required soldiers–made it so they couldn’t at least make up for their lack of Real Man ™ cred by shooting foreign bad guys. A few were lucky enough to get in on the first Gulf war, but then the rest of the ’90s passed without more of a chance for them to fight. A whole new generation got dragged into Iraq and Afghanistan after that, but by then it was too late for most of these guys. Over the years, some of these soldier-wannabes managed to salvage some sense of power by getting into sports or becoming cops, but most didn’t even have that chance.
So what’s a man to do when he’s struggling, but has little community support (or refuses it), and no way to prove his worth as a man by at least killing people half a world away? Well, you create a war at home, and conscript yourself into the army fighting it. If you don’t have a foreign government to fight, then the Feds are the next best thing, especially when they’re represented by someone your culture has taught you is an enemy.
Which leads me to the race issue: It is of course worth noting that these men are treated entirely differently than would be brown or black men doing something similar (or, to be honest, doing nothing more than protesting against being murdered in the streets by people who are supposed to be protecting them.) It is reasonable to bring this up, and to wonder why they’re not being framed as terrorists or gang members. There should be no question that these groups operate that way: Groups of militant extremists using violence or the threat thereof to try to establish a political, economic, and social system that favors them above all others.
That said, mobilizing a major response to what they’re doing here only feeds into their fantasy of being martyrs. They WANT to go down in a hail of Federal bullets because this is their last chance, in their minds, to prove their heroic masculinity. These are scared little boys trying to prove how badass they are, and bringing in big guns proves exactly that: A big response makes them believe that they’re being taken seriously; that they really are a big deal and will be heard and remembered. They have the same mentality as mass shooters (as some of them have been): They want their names in the paper, even if they have to die to make that happen.
The way to stop them, therefore, is to disarm them. Literally, on a larger scale, but also figuratively, by not giving them the blazing battle they want. In this case, the best thing to do is just sit and wait, maybe use some non-violent tactics like pumping in annoying music or something, until they realize they’re not going to get the fight–the chance at glory–they’ve fantasized about. When they’re met with a collective yawn and maybe some pointing and laughing, they’ll pitch a fit, trying to get attention, but eventually they’ll get bored and give up. It’ll be a few, at first, but as the deserters go, so will the leaders.
Of course, there are also bigger-picture things we need to do to solve the root problems. Fixing the economy and ceasing to lionize violent masculinity would be great. But until we get there, we have to contend with dipshits like this, and the best way to do that is to find ways to keep them from doing large-scale harm when they throw their inevitable tantrums. They are terrorists, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean we need to feed their idea that they’re also martyrs.