The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is back where it belongs: in the hands of the American people, free for everyone to use and enjoy. The month-long occupation by white Christian terrorists ended in utterly mundane fashion, with most of the militants taken into custody at a traffic stop as they attempted to travel to a public meeting in a neighboring county.
For the first few weeks of the occupation, it was frustrating how passive and disengaged the authorities were. The FBI came to town but took no action for several weeks, even letting the militants move back and forth freely between the refuge and nearby towns. It now seems that the intent was to lull them into a false sense of untouchability, let them get accustomed to moving around, and then spring the trap and arrest them when they were isolated and vulnerable. We’ll probably never know if this was the plan all along, or if the authorities only decided to do this after it became clear they wouldn’t give up and go away on their own.
Either way, the mostly-peaceful resolution to the crisis is a welcome example of law enforcement restraint. Best of all, Cliven Bundy himself was scooped up too, falling victim to the same trick: he was arrested after boarding a plane to fly to Oregon and join the occupation. It speaks volumes about how invincible Bundy thought himself that he willingly boarded a plane, where he’d have no guns and no mob of supporters at his back, and assumed nothing would happen to him. It’s a most welcome bonus that he’ll face justice for his own deluded little insurgency.
There’s just one dark spot on this story. That’s that LaVoy Finicum, a self-proclaimed spokesman of the occupiers, was shot and killed at the traffic stop where the others were arrested.
I’ve watched the video of his death, taken by an FBI aerial camera. The militants’ van, driving down an isolated and snowy stretch of highway, suddenly comes across a police barricade blocking the road in front of them. They pull off the road, perhaps to try to go around the blockade, but the car plows into a deep snowbank and immediately gets stuck.
Finicum steps out of the car and staggers around in a circle, waving his arms. At one point, he touches his jacket, where we later found out he was carrying a gun. His actions seem confused, as if he’s trying to make up his mind in the heat of the moment whether to run, fight or surrender. Two policemen approach him from opposite directions with guns drawn. There’s no sound on the video, but we can assume they were ordering him to surrender. Instead, Finicum reaches into his jacket a second time, and he’s shot and falls to the ground almost instantly. The whole encounter is over within 30 seconds.
What followed was a bizarre and protracted standoff with the final four occupiers of the refuge, who insisted that they wouldn’t surrender unless the FBI promised not to arrest them. After three of the four were persuaded to give themselves up, the last holdout, David Fry, delivered a rambling, pathetic monologue in which he repeatedly threatened to kill himself, until he too finally agreed to surrender.
The militants who came to Oregon wanted a heroic last stand. Instead, their rebellion ended with a whimper, with the so-called patriots surrounded, outnumbered and begging not to be arrested. If we’re lucky, their inglorious end will make it less appealing for others to try similar stunts in the future. The refuge still faces a long cleanup, including a sweep for boobytraps by the bomb squad, but the crisis is behind us at last.
If there are any lessons to be drawn from this, I’d suggest a reassuring one: the white Christian militia movement may be smaller than we believed. For all their big talk of defiance and rebellion, the ones who are prepared to use violence or openly break the law are the fringe of the fringe. When push came to shove, they were never able to conjure up more than a handful of people, and even those wilted under pressure and were captured with relatively little incident. That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous – if anything, small groups are less predictable and more susceptible to violent, impulsive action than large ones. But it does show that far-right dreams of a general uprising are sheer fantasy.