The trouble with appeals to heaven is the answer might disappoint. For the folks who’ve commandeered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, that could spell disaster.
My pulse quickens and a certain anarchist joy dawns when I hear of a group of citizens reclaiming their sovereignty. But I smile with the uneasy conscience of a limousine anarchist. Truth be told, I depend on the good will of others to enjoy the life I lead. So do you.
Armed men seized the largely vacant compound in rural Oregon to show solidarity with a rancher and his son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been sentenced to prison for arson. The two ranchers burned land to prevent the growth of invasive plants and to combat wildfires. It turns out their fires spread to federal land.
The protesters at Malheur regard the Hammonds as heroes who were reasserting their natural right to control their land. In this narrative, the federal government, which owns 640 million acres of land, is the harsh and unreasonable overlord. The Hammonds struck back, and the Malheur occupiers have now taken their stand, as well.
As it turns out, the great Satan, Uncle Sam, has shown uncommon sense in the Malheur standoff. No federal troops appear to ring the facility; no federal agent has, at least publicly, served a notice to quit the premises. It appears as if the feds intend to regard this play at rebellion as little more than a sleepover — sooner or later the protesters will just get tired and go home.
The sight of armed men taking federal property quickly yielded claims that the men were terrorists. Otherwise sensible people of color were quick to contend that this was an example of “white privilege” and that, had the armed men been black, they would have been dead by now.
That’s just silliness and racial preening: The effort to strain every event through a racial colander yields only unpalatable mush.
The protesters aren’t terrorists. They’ve not strapped on suicide vests and waltzed into a shopping mall, nor have they turned their guns on unsuspecting people. What they’ve done is taken aim at the federal government and, thus far, they’ve not fired a shot.
Federal land-management policies are highly controversial in the far West, where the government owns as much as one-third of all the land in some states. A federal regulation to protect an endangered species has the potential to infuriate a community, especially when the government shows more solicitude for a reptile than it does for the people it governs.
(If you want a quick introduction to these tensions in fictional form, read C.J. Box’s “Savage Run,” the first in a series of thrillers that captures the beauty of the West and the antagonism between government and those governed.)
Things will get interesting if the standoff doesn’t end soon with a quiet retreat. The feds will eventually move in: expect a midnight raid, the better to avoid film footage and a replay of the carnage at the Branch Davidian compound of David Koresh in Waco, Texas.
And who do you think will win this struggle?
I am reminded all at once of John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government,” written in 1689. Locke is one of the great social contract theorists; I fell in love with his ideas in college and reread his treatise from time to time.
Armed resistance and shows of armed resistance to duly constituted government are risky. John Locke knew this. But he knew that sometimes armed resistance was all that the people had to protect their rights and liberties from tyranny. Hence, the appeal to heaven.
When the sovereign doesn’t listen, the people have the right to resist, with force, if necessary. The results of this conflict are for the heavens — God, in Locke’s view — to decide. Rebellion is risky.
Locke wrote several decades after the conclusion of the English civil wars in the 1640s. They were bloody affairs, resulting in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. England was torn apart by parties and factions claiming to know what God wanted.
In the end, the monarchy was restored, and death warrants signed for the parliamentarians who authorized Charles’ beheading. Indeed, three of the principal streets in New Haven are named after men who authorized the execution. They took flight to the Colonies and hid in New Haven Colony from the wrath of Charles’ son, Charles II — Edward Whalley, William Goffe and John Dixwell.
Public rhetoric about government and the rights of the people was incendiary in 17th-century England. Such rhetoric is becoming explosive in our time, too.
But playing at revolutionary rhetoric can have fatal consequences. The armed men in Oregon are hard to take seriously. Theirs is less an appeal to heaven than preening for prime time.
Government is a thing of mystery, much like the starry heavens above and moral law within. Just how we come to cloak perfect strangers with the right to tell us what to do is the grand fascination of political philosophers. In the United States, we say we are governed by the consent of the governed. Locke’s social contract theory lingers in the background of our political rhetoric.
So, too, does the possibility for open and armed insurrection. Empires come and go, after all. The wheel of history turns and breaks every heart in the end.
These are angry days in the United States. Perhaps sparks will ignite and create a fire. Maybe the mass shootings are the canaries in the mineshaft — signals that the air we breathe no longer sustains. Perhaps.
But I suspect we’re all still a little too comfortable with the lives we lead to cast our future to chance.
I’ve little real use for those play-acting at revolt. The Oregonians are just an armed version of the costumed tea partiers. They are not serious about their appeal to heaven. Neither are the talking heads on the radio and television.
This drama will end soon enough. Then comes the federal prosecutions and the prison jumpsuits. This isn’t the fire next time; it’s not even smoke.