There are often immediate demands to label all sorts of violence and criminality as terrorism, but there are good reasons to use the term sparingly. The words that describe crimes matter. This is as true of the Oregon showdown as it was in the early days after the San Bernardino shooting, when the facts were not yet clear. Introducing “terrorism” as a label creates certain demands and pressures on how the state reacts, how the legal system handles a case, and how the general population responds—generally verging toward hysteria, in the latter case. The Bundy militia is clearly in violation of the law in seizing the building. Like a terrorist group, it has political goals—a vague set of grievances about federal management of lands and accusations that the government is pushing ranchers out. (The AP reported that the Bundys say they sent specifics to authorities, but have not released them publicly.) But it’s not clear what material danger they pose—despite their posturing about willingness to die. After all, the 2014 Nevada Bundy demonstrations were resolved peacefully, and there’s no active gunfire here.
“You have basically a protest manifesting as the takeover of public property,” Ijames said. “They’re obviously doing this on principle, whatever that principle might be.” In this way, there’s another similarity with protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, he added: “To some degree it’s not dissimilar from the concept of Black Lives Matter: it’s pushing back on government, it’s pushing back on people in power.”
The occupiers may not have the same goal of peaceful resolution that the feds do: Ryan Bundy told an Oregonian reporter they are “willing to kill and be killed if necessary.” On the other hand, his brother Ammon Bundy told NBC, “The only violence that, if it comes our way, will be because government is wanting their building back. We’re putting nobody in harm’s way. We are not threatening anybody. We’re 30 miles out of the closest town.”
Just as protestors sometimes seek to provoke police overreaction, thus damaging police credibility, this looks like a ploy for federal overreaction. As the deadly 1990s standoffs in Waco and Ruby Ridge showed, that doesn’t always redound to the benefit of law enforcement. That’s another reason not to play into the militia’s hands.
Finally, there might be a measure of sympathy among liberal criminal-justice reformers for Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose legal battle inspired the standoff, if not for the methods of their self-appointed supporters. As Marina Koren explained, the Hammonds were tried for lighting fires on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which they had leased for cattle grazing. They were convicted of arson on federal lands, but argued the five-year mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutional. The trial court agreed, but on appeal the mandatory minimum was upheld.