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Could Oregon Be the Next Waco?

Probably not. But Waco and Ruby Ridge offer important lessons for law enforcement.

Bob Daemmrich / Getty Images

What is at stake in the government’s handling of the armed occupation of a small outpost in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge?

On the one hand, a potential conflict between law officers and the armed militiamen headed by Ammon Bundy has left many in Burns, Oregon, feeling ill at ease. “I’m worried that there’s a trigger-happy idiot out there,” Burns resident Candy Tiller told Oregon Public Broadcasting last week. “And maybe a law enforcement officer or somebody else makes a move that makes him think they’re pulling a gun and he’s going to shoot. It worries me. It brings me to tears. I don’t want that. I don’t want that for anybody.” 

The same report describes Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward losing sleep amidst death threats issued against him by supporters of the Hammond family, two of whom face prison sentences for setting fires on federal land. Meanwhile, even militia-sympathetic residents are expressing concern over the antagonistic tactics taken up by the Bundy group. For the sake of residents whose schools are now closed and who are living in a state of heightened anxiety, and of local law enforcement whose resources are being drained by the militia’s activities, it is critical to resolve the occupation as soon as possible.

On the other hand, precedent also suggests caution. Two past showdowns echo elements of the Bundy predicament: the deadly 1993 siege of a Branch Davidian compound headed by David Koresh in Waco, Texas, which involved religiously committed individuals who refused to exit their property or cooperate with authorities on firearms charges; and the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff between the Weaver family and U.S. Marshals aided by the FBI, which resulted in the killing of a woman and 14-year-old boy by law enforcement. All three cases involve, to varying degrees, questions of government excess and individual liberties unfolding along the axes of property, guns, and religion.

Waco and Ruby Ridge were broadly believed to have been mishandled by authorities after the fact. A 1999 CBS poll found, for instance, that 27 percent disapproved of the FBI’s actions at the time of the siege, but that figure climbed up to 43 percent by 1999. More than half believed there had been a government cover-up of the events in Waco. Meanwhile, the FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver at Ruby Ridge was charged with manslaughter in her death, though the charges never successfully went to trial.

Waco and Ruby Ridge also had a massive impact on extremist right-wing groups in the United States, including religious-separatist, militia-oriented, and white supremacist groups. A 2013 report entitled “Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right,” authored by Arie Perlinger of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, found that Waco and Ruby Ridge served as “catalysts for the formation of the militia movement … which set off a dynamic which transformed an existing subculture into a violent counterculture. Both events were not just responsible for an escalation in the hostile perceptions towards the federal government among people from rural and mid-America, but they also engraved in the minds of the public the understanding that self-defense of their way of life and values, inevitability meant acting against, or vigilantly protecting themselves from, the federal authorities.” 

The events of Waco and Ruby Ridge, in other words, helped ferment far-right sensibilities into active countercultural movements by confirming what these extremist groups had long believed to be true of government power.

Waco also had immediate, violent impact. During the 1997 trial of Timothy McVeigh for killing 168 people with a fertilizer bomb placed near an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, journalism student Michelle Rauch testified that she had interviewed a young, unknown McVeigh at the site of the Waco conflict, where he had traveled to observe it unfold and sell anti-government bumper stickers. Rauch testified that McVeigh told her, among other things, that “the government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people.” He added that “the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” 

McVeigh’s realization—what some might reasonably call radicalization—at Waco was still evident in 1996, when he complained in a letter to reporter Phil Bacharach that “the public never saw the Davidians’ home video of their cute babies, adorable children, loving mothers, or protective fathers. Nor did they see pictures of the charred remains of children’s bodies. Therefore, they didn’t care when these families died a slow, torturous death at the hands of the FBI…” 

Bacharach noted that he “was surprised that Waco still weighed so heavily in [McVeigh’s] thoughts.” But it turns out the event had simply been a pivotal moment for the American far-right. Bacharach’s surprise, as well as McVeigh’s declaration that everyday Americans had missed the reality of the horror in Waco, should be instructive: Though the occupation in Oregon may appear frivolous and weird, mockable and quixotic, it is undoubtedly registering on quite a different level to other onlookers, some of whom were already comparing the two situations in late December.

There are reasons to doubt Oregon will attain the symbolic value of Waco, even if resolution is not peaceful. For one, the Hammonds have declined the proffered aid from the Bundys, and have made it clear the Bundy militia does not speak for them. Therefore, the confrontation is more about the militia than what federal authorities may have done to the Hammonds. 

Further, much of the rhetorical weight of the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents arose from the fact that both involved the killing of women and children in domestic locations. At the unoccupied wildlife outpost, there are no women or babies carrying out normal household routines. 

Lastly, with the Hammonds disavowing the Bundys, the remaining Bundy complaint with federal authorities concerns the handling of public lands by the Bureau of Land Management, a more abstract and exclusive issue than the possession of firearms or the free practice of religious belief.

Still, the FBI’s approach of prioritizing a peaceful resolution to the occupation still seems best. The conditions appear ripe for another expansion of right-wing extremist movements, which had declined somewhat between the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  

“It is evident that the economic boom of the late 1990s, which was followed by the passage to 2000 without any catastrophe and the election of a conservative president, led to a dramatic decrease in the credibility of the movement and its leaders,” Perlinger’s report reads. But the 2008 “election of a Democratic president with a liberal background; the economic recession; and the introduction of policies and reforms threatening the independence of local political authorities” have all contributed to concerns about a revival of far-right sentiments and their attendant movements. 

The prominence of figures like Donald Trump, who regularly indulges in xenophobic rhetoric and anti-government gun-baiting, might also provide context for the development and spread of a far-right resurgence, especially if an even vaguely Waco-esque flashpoint becomes available.

Oregon probably won’t turn into Waco, and it almost certainly won’t achieve the ideological gravitas of either Waco or Ruby Ridge. But that doesn’t mean it won’t serve a similar if smaller function on the extreme far-right if mishandled by the federal authorities. It’s frustrating to see unlawful conduct treated with kid gloves in a historical moment when so much police brutality against blacks goes unprosecuted, but in the case of far-right militia groups a careful, non-violent federal solution will likely serve the general public’s safety better in the long run. 

 Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sammy Weaver was killed by the same FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver. Sammy Weaver was likely killed by a deputy U.S. marshal