The United States' Tense History with Armed Standoffs

Arizona cattle rancher LaVoy Finicum leads a tour through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 3. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The takeover of a federal facility in rural Oregon by well-armed, self-styled militia members poses a huge challenge to U.S. law enforcement and raises the spectre of past standoffs that have led to disastrous loss of lives.

Last week, dozens of protestors rallied in Burms, Oregon, in the state's southeastern corner, over a land dispute with the federal government. A breakaway group, vowing to take direct action, then took over a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to protest the sentencing of two local ranchers who had lit fires on federal lands adjacent to their properties. After initially being given sentences of a year and under, the U.S. Attorney appealed their convictions and their sentences were extended by a federal appeals court, sparking the protests.

The militants who have seized the federal facility—whether the group is a few dozen or 100-plus strong remains unclear—have vowed to settle in for a long siege. There's no reason to think that they're lacking the firepower or rations to last sometime.

Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the protest and the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who led a similar standoff in 2014, evinced calm as he spoke with reporters on Sunday, saying the occupiers were simply citizens exercising their rights. He thanked supporters, adding a special word for "whoever gave us that great chili, thank you. It was really really wonderful." Bundy insisted that his group was not seeking violence.

All of this leaves federal law enforcement with a conundrum they've faced before: how to enforce the law without leading to injury or loss of life—something that seems eminently possible. Unfortunately, the government's history of dealing with this kind of siege has not been good.

The modern militia movement was given a boost following the 1992 siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which the federal government had arrest warrants against white separatist Randy Weaver. Despite federal efforts to plan the arrest carefully, it became a fiasco, with Weaver's son and a federal marshal dying in a shootout and Weaver's wife being taken out by an FBI sniper. Weaver was found guilty on various weapons charges and the federal government paid more than $3 million to settle a suit stemming from the sniper shooting. If that wasn't bad enough, a senior FBI official was sentenced to more than a year in jail for destroying evidence form the case.

That was a relatively simple case involving one family, not a small army. In other cases, involving large-scale resistance, the results have been even bloodier. The federal government's effort to arrest cult leader David Koresh in 1993 from his compound in Waco, Texas, where he was wanted for child abuse and other charges, led to a small bloodbath followed by an even worse weeks-long standoff in which ATF agents tried to take the camp. The compound caught fire in April 1993 and 76 members of Koresh's Branch Davidian sect were killed, many of them children. That siege has become an object lesson in how not to end a volatile situation, but also it underscores the difficulty of determining whether those being arrested are committed to some kind of martyrdom.

The takeover of the New York prison in Attica, New York, in 1971 is another lesson in how a situation can get out of control. When prisoners rioting over poor conditions took over the facility, they met with a widely derided response from the state's governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Thirty three inmates and 10 correctional officers died during the melee. Likewise, in 1973, the siege by American Indian activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, brought considerable attention to the plight of Native Americans, but there were also casualties, including two Native Americans killed and a federal agent left paralyzed.

Not all standoffs end in bloodshed. A 1997 showdown between Texas law enforcement and a group of Texas separatists ended peacefully, as did a 1996, 81-day standoff that year with the Freemen of Montana, another separatist group.

On balance, federal authorities seem to be using extreme caution in the case of the Oregon protests. There's been no move of FBI or other federal agencies into the area, according to local news reports, and on Sunday the agency said in a statement that it was working with local authorities to "bring a peaceful resolution to the situation." But federal officials are likely to feel some pressure to move. After Cliven Bundy's 2014 standoff, the federal government backed down and the elderly Bundy still owes more than $1 million in grazing fees charged for his cattle using federal lands. Acting to bring the standoff to an end is risky but there's also a risk in doing nothing if it encourages others to take the law into their hands.