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The Oregon Standoff: When We Mistake Terrorism for Protest

05/01/2016 18:13 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

It has been three days since a group of armed men broke into the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, in what has been described by mainstream media as an act of 'protest' against government overreach on rangelands throughout the western United States. As it stands, there have been no attempts by law enforcement to remove them. Instead, a federal government official has described passive plans to cut off power to the refuge, to give these guys "a long, lonely winter to think about what they've done."

Some argue this is not terrorism, claiming that the group's actions have not posed danger to human lives. There have certainly not been reports of gunfire or anyone being held against their will, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

To be clear, what we are dealing with is a group of armed men forcefully taking publicly managed property, and using the threat of violence to get the federal government to change a law. The group's leaders, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, have said they are willing to kill or be killed if there are attempts to remove them, and have called for supporters and other 'patriots' to join them: "We need you to bring your arms".

The inaction we have seen thus far is driven by a paradoxical combination of underestimation and fear. On the one hand, the approach to "wait things out" and "avoid confrontation" has been defended on the grounds that the militants will come to their senses and desist. This is a luxury offered to few other criminals, and based on the assumption that right-wing sovereign citizen violence doesn't need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, a passive approach has been defended on the basis that law enforcement officers directly intervening will ignite and escalate violence.

The very specific context in which this is raised as an excuse for inaction - largely white militants or extremists undertaking coercion and violence for a political cause - leaves us with the unsavoury conclusion that those with darker skin are more justifiable targets of excessive application of federal law enforcement, even before proven guilty. The argument has already been well made that if the Oregon militants were Muslim or Black, they would probably be dead by now. In a year when 'resisting arrest' has been used as justification for injury and even death for those unarmed in police custody in America, tiptoeing around an armed militia has said they are willing to kill (a particularly violent form of 'resisting arrest') seems undue caution.

However, in criticizing the double-standards at play here, the solution should not be to use excessive force across the board. There is reason to handle this situation with care. This occupation is part of a series of standoffs between the state and so called 'Patriots' over the past three decades which have fanned the flames of a growing set of right-wing sovereign citizen extremist movements. Namely, two other cases of 'resisting arrest': the siege of Ruby Ridge in 1992 (during an attempt to arrest by force, killing two), and the subsequent Waco siege in 1993 (where 70 people died during an FBI assault on a religious compound during a search and arrest warrant), which were critical moments that helped to mobilize both the patriot movement and white supremacist movements.

Like Islamist extremists, right-wing extremists are inspired by a perception of being at war, and are preoccupied with the notion of martyrdom. Ruby Ridge and Waco developed a new line of martyrs in the perceived war between the government and the patriots. The results of this perceived war? Everything ranging from lone shoot-outs with police, to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and was directly inspired by Ruby Ridge and Waco.

The number one domestic terrorism threat as noted by the FBI comes from right-wing sovereign citizen extremists, who believe the government has no authority over them. Governments often rely on the assumption (and in some cases reality) that right-wing groups lack the organizational capacity to carry out large-scale acts of terror, but when a group of right-wing sovereign citizen extremists (between 15 and 150 in Oregon) do organize themselves duly, we overlook the severity of their actions.

Armed occupation and destruction of spaces by extremists is a dangerous tactic, and this isn't the only context or country in which right-wing extremists have used this tactic for political objectives. Those that believe this is a uniquely American problem are misguided. The clearest example of this phenomenon at play is the ongoing wave of attacks against refugee and asylum centers across Europe, which have been dubbed 'protests' against the arrival of and acceptance of refugees. These so-called acts of 'protest' have ranged from occupation of buildings, to arson and bombings.

Just as dangerous as these actions themselves is that some European governments have justified new restrictions on refugee arrivals on the basis of this violence, which serves to legitimize right-wing violence against publicly managed spaces as a form of political protest - and an effective one at that. Not only do we tend to overlook the severity of right-wing violence, but the implications of passive responses.

Though use of excessive force by law enforcement should not be the answer in Oregon, it is not good enough for law enforcement to give armed gunmen time to "think about what they've done" and hope they come around.

Many have focused on how inaction of authorities in Oregon highlights racial biases and double standards in police use of force and counter-terrorism in the United States. But one of the most dangerous outcomes of inaction against violence is the legitimacy we implicitly lend it. Let's not mistake terrorism for protest.