Whether someone is remembered as a patriot or a domestic terrorist usually is determined by who wins the war.
But in the war of words over whether the gun-toting protesters now camping near the Cliven Bundy ranch are patriots or terrorists, the answer is neither.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid started things off last week at the Review-Journal’s monthly Hashtags &Headlines luncheon by calling the protesters “domestic terrorists.” He noted they carried sniper rifles and took up strategic positions. He noted former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack’s claim that the protesters put women and children on the front lines, so that if Bureau of Land Management officials opened fire, they’d been seen as killing the innocent.
“So, these people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not,” Reid said. “They’re nothing more than domestic terrorists.”
But that’s not accurate. Title 18 of the United States Code in Section 2331 defines domestic terrorism as acts dangerous to human life that are violations of state or federal criminal laws that “appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
And the Bundy Bunch have done none of those things. A few of their number may have obstructed federal officers in the performance of their duties, or obstructed the service of a court order, which are federal crimes. Some of them closed down Interstate 15, which is a public nuisance and disorderly conduct, at least. One of them tried to deny access on a public road to a crew from 8NewsNow. Some may have aimed weapons at BLM officers, which is a gross misdemeanor in Nevada.
But none of those things constitutes domestic terrorism under the law, and won’t, so long as the camp-out remains peaceful.
On the other hand, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller made a point to disagree with Reid during a joint TV appearance on “What’s Your Point?” on KSNV, Channel 3.
“I have a very different view,” Heller said. “What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots.”
Yes, he said that, prompting Reid to reply, “If they’re patriots, we’re in big trouble.”
We’re probably already in big trouble if a United States senator can’t distinguish between a patriot — a person who willingly pledges his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to his fellow countrymen — and a band of armed misfits who came from far and wide to stand by a kindly old crank who decided long ago he just wasn’t going to pay his grazing fees, even in the face of a federal court order. Cliven Bundy has gone so far as to say he doesn’t recognize the existence of the United States of America, a country for which real patriots have fought and died.
Heller called for hearings into the BLM’s handling of the incident, claiming an “army” of 200 armed agents were involved. (According to the BLM’s website, there are only 270 rangers and special agents employed in the entire organization.) But hearings may be a good idea, if they serve to excise some of the myths circulated since this incident began. (Among the first: the BLM created the problem by sending armed rangers to collect Bundy’s trespassing cattle. Rangers are always armed, and it was Bundy who blew the militia’s dog whistle when he called for a “range war” over his deliberately unpaid fees.)
While right-wing media figures, would-be militia members and woefully under-informed state and federal lawmakers would like to make this case about the First Amendment, grazing rights, the management of public lands and the overreach of federal authorities, the fact is, Heller’s “patriots” have rallied for the fictional right to graze cattle on public lands, socializing the costs of ranching while privatizing the profits. But “crony capitalism” isn’t as stirring a rallying cry as “freedom,” is it?
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.