How to Resolve an Armed Standoff

A low-key approach may work best to avoid escalating conflict.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Federal law-enforcement agents have so far kept a low profile as armed anti-government protesters occupy a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. That strategy is likely the best way to resolve a standoff peacefully. It may also ease tensions between anti-government extremists and the feds. But it could alienate progressive activists, and embolden far-right militants, if broken laws go unpunished.

The federal government faces a set of unattractive choices as it tries to resolve the situation. A high-profile clash with the militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, risks a loss of life. It could also have negative repercussions that extend well beyond the standoff. Armed protesters occupying the refuge claim to be taking a stand against the pernicious effects of government overreach. A violent confrontation with federal officials could add fuel to the fire of anti-government radicalism nationwide by feeding a narrative that the feds are willing to go to war with anyone who challenges their authority.

“This has national attention right now so whatever happens it’s going to become a story that will become part of the tapestry of ideology that animates these groups, and impacts how they see themselves in relation to the government,” said William Braniff, the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a project led by the University of Maryland. “Moments like this highlight a schism in society. Depending on how the government reacts, it could either drive a wedge deeper, or it could bring the country closer together.”

To avoid escalating the situation, security experts say the federal government should steer clear of engaging protesters directly. Instead, local law enforcement may have a better chance at success by taking a visible lead. Opening up lines of communication between community members and family members of the armed protestors may also prove to be an effective tactic. Protestors are more likely to be moved by people they know personally.

“You want to try to influence them by getting them to speak with people they care about. That message shouldn’t be coming from on high, from the FBI director or from President Obama,” said David Schanzer, the director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

So far, the federal government’s response seems consistent with that strategy. The FBI is leading the investigation of the Oregon standoff, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest took pains on Monday to create the appearance that the federal government is playing a supporting role. Earnest noted that the “federal government has a vested interest” in the standoff but expressed hope that “local law enforcement can resolve the situation.” He added that the FBI is closely monitoring the occupation and has offered help to local law enforcement.

On Monday, Harney County Sheriff David Ward called for an end to the armed occupation. “It is time for you to leave our community. Go home, be with your own families and end this peacefully,” he said. That message, delivered by local and not federal law enforcement, may to resonate. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Ryan Bundy, one of the protestors, said “that he and the other men occupying federal buildings in Harney County, Oregon, will leave peacefully if the people of the community want them to,” though “Bundy said he does not think the sheriff speaks for the entire community.”

Past events highlight the peril of confrontation. In 1992, federal agents faced off against Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in a confrontation that left Weaver’s wife and 14-year old son dead along with a deputy U.S. Marshal. The following year, the deadly siege of compound controlled by members of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, resulted in the death of four federal agents and more than 80 people, including women and children.

The events sparked widespread criticism aimed at federal law enforcement. The deadly clashes acted as a catalyst for America’s militia movement, and served as motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh, which left 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. “In … letters to his hometown paper, McVeigh reiterated that what he did was necessary to defend the personal freedom of all Americans and exact revenge for the disastrous government raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas,” the Associated Press reported.

In the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco, federal law enforcement has taken a more subdued approach. But a response that swings too far in the opposite direction of confrontation carries its own risks.

If the government appears to treat Oregon’s armed occupiers with too light a touch, far-right militants may be emboldened. In 2014, federal agents ended a standoff with militias over cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees on public land in Nevada, by packing up and leaving. Bundy declared victory. The event generated enthusiasm on the far-right. “Americans showed up with guns and said ‘No, you’re not,” conservative radio talk-show host Alex Jones told Reuters in the aftermath of the standoff. “And they said, ‘Shoot us.’ and they did not. That’s epic. And it’s going to happen more.”

There’s a case to be made that the Oregon standoff itself is evidence that Bundy’s victory empowered anti-government activists. The rancher's sons Ryan and Ammon have been vocal leaders of the Oregon occupation, although the elder Bundy has appeared to distance himself from the fight.

“By backing off, you empower individuals who are not abiding by the law, whether that’s with respect to taxes or land use or firearms,” Braniff said. “There’s the potential that you undermine the legitimacy of the government if you fail to enforce the law of the land, and that's certainly no way to run a country.”

Security experts warn that broken laws should eventually be punished. “We need a two-fold response: use conflict reduction techniques to diffuse the situation and prevent violence, but make sure that the criminal and civil laws are enforced afterwards,” Schanzer said.

As federal officials work to prevent violent escalation, government agents also run the risk that their response will leave the impression that armed white men who seize federal property can expect to be treated more leniently than activists who have faced tear gas and police in riot gear while protesting police brutality.

Social media has erupted with accusations of a double standard at work, as progressives suggest that law enforcement is not treating armed white militants as harshly as it would peaceful black protestors. That frustration may worsen an already tense and strained relationship between civil-rights activists and federal law enforcement.

At the same time, the standoff highlights the intense lack of trust between the federal government and white anti-government protesters. Efforts to build that trust likely aren’t likely to succeed in the midst of an armed standoff, but could take place afterward.

“It has to take place outside the context of a particular incident or conflict,” Schanzer said. “But when things normalize, it is about law enforcement reaching out to communities to explain what they do and how they can provide assistance and service to the community.”