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No, the Bundys Aren’t Terrorists

Let's not spoil the anti-Bundy consensus by playing the T-word game.

Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images

The occupation of the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon by armed insurrectionaries may as well have been designed to allow liberals to troll conservatives—and vice-versa. 

For liberals, the ironies are especially potent. The siege is taking place against the backdrop of a long, polarizing national debate over racial bias in the criminal justice system. Liberals thus can use—and have used—the development to highlight the disparate ways law enforcement treats white and black citizens. Against another backdrop of a shameless and incessant Republican campaign to sow panic over Islamist terrorism, some liberals are accusing the occupiers of committing terrorism. 

Montel Williams took considerable heat from conservatives online for “calling on Govt to end terrorist siege perpetrated by a bunch of hillbilly American Taliban,” and other public statements. Hashtags like #yallqaeda have been trending on Twitter thanks to liberals since the siege began. In The Washington Post, Janel Ross asked, “Why aren’t we calling the Oregon occupiers ‘terrorists’?” and wondered whether the media would avoid such terms if Muslims, African-Americans, or others had taken the same action. 

There are elements of truth in these critiques. But they also contain conceptual and strategic flaws, which arouse the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that they’re being offered in bad faith—that they’re being deployed intentionally as tu quoque appeals rather than in the spirit of mutual comprehension. That’s unfortunate, because for once, the facts of the case lend themselves to a meaningful consensus about the propriety of armed citizens using threats of violence to achieve political goals.

The most succinct condemnation of the takeover so far didn’t come from a liberal politician, but from Senator Ted Cruz, a surging Republican presidential candidate and conservative movement leader. Cruz rightly noted that “we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others,” and called on the protesters to “stand down peaceably.”

That doesn’t speak to the utterly obvious fact that this story would be treated much differently (by the right and by the press) if the occupation were undertaken by black or Muslim militiamen, and the frustration that inconsistency causes. But it gets the nature of the actual crime basically right—and with greater precision and effectiveness than we get by falling back on accusations of terrorism.

Conservatives in particular have abused the term for the past decade and a half, but that doesn’t justify unfair turnabout. For one thing, nobody is being terrorized by the Oregon occupiers. A mischievous conservative troll could condemn the trespassing and the threats of violence while excusing the rest as an occupation of public space (like a public college campus) to protest mandatory minimum sentences (something liberals typically, and rightly, oppose). 

The crime here is obviously more severe than simple trespassing. It’s probably even fair to call it seditious. But the men took no hostages, and aren’t threatening to commit acts of violence against civilians.

The leaders of the takeover, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, are following in the footsteps of their father Cliven, who took up arms last year when the Bureau of Land Management insisted he pay requisite fees for the right to graze his cattle on public land. He’s a moocher who decided to enter a standoff with the federal government rather than pay a (significantly discounted) price for his cattle to graze on land he doesn’t own. And he basically succeeded.

Ryan and Ammon and their followers are using the same tactics (occupying federal property, and initiating a standoff) to secure a different victory. They say they won’t relinquish control of the wildlife facility until the federal government gives up control of the entire refuge. They’re also demanding a more lenient sentence for local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who set fire to federal land in Oregon way back in 2001 and are now headed back to federal prison under a federal anti-terrorism statute that establishes a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of arson on federal property.

This is obnoxious, illegal, and incredibly reckless behavior. It’s also quite different from, say, shooting several people in a Planned Parenthood clinic to scare women out of having elective abortions. To paraphrase Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican primary field, these guys are radical, but they aren’t terrorists.

As it happens, there’s reason to doubt Cruz’s sincerity here. The senator’s first instinct back in April 2014 was to align himself with Cliven Bundy. He abandoned the cause when Bundy gave a public sermon in support of slavery, but a year later, Cruz sent out a fundraising email insisting, “The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny—for the protection of liberty.”

Either that’s true or it isn’t true, and whether it’s true or not has nothing to do with whether Cruz wants to juice his fundraising numbers, or whether Cliven Bundy and kin are racists. But for the time being, for whatever reason, Cruz is right about the Bundys. It makes more sense to embrace his critique of the occupiers, and ask that he apply it consistently, than to spoil the anti-Bundy consensus by accusing this ragtag group of fantasists of being terrorists.