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.”