Thursday, March 30, 2006

The "Freemen" Standoff remembered

Today's twenty-year-olds were only ten at the time, more interested in toys than current events. Today's thirty-year-olds might have had their politics shaped in part by what was happening around them at the time. Now that is a scary thought, but it may explain why there is such a hunger for talk radio extremism, and why there is such a strong irrational baseline paranoia in the country that many ordinary people give warriors a higher status than peacemakers. (Strong authority figures are always more reassuring in times of crisis than negotiators. When people get out of line they start to look like punks, and it's more satisfying to see somebody kicking ass than talking.) Older people, thirty to fifty, began to wake up from their long political naps and start paying attention to the world around them. Bill Clinton, by then becoming more Republican than the Republicans, was elected to a second term, the economy was moving swimmingly well and the pre-9/11 world was in tall cotton.

But some segments of society were not part of the flow. This reflective article from the Billings Gazette looks vack at the time.

In 1993, David Koresh, a religious fanatic who claimed to be Jesus, gathered the faithful at a compound in Waco, Texas. A 51-day standoff with ATF agents ended April 19 in a bloodbath and fire that left 80 inside the compound and four agents dead.

That, in turn, inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later on April 19, 1995. His revenge for Waco took 168 lives, including those of 19 children in a day care.

The anti-government movement was sizzling across the country and especially in the West, where suspicion of government authority is woven into the social fabric.

Further infuriating the radical conservative movement was the election and pending re-election of President Clinton, whom many in rural America considered on a par with Satan himself.

Rural Montana has a broad streak of political individualism converging with a generally conservative nature and a strong distrust of government, said Jim Lopach, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Montana.

"I wasn't surprised by the developments in Eastern Montana," he said. "What I was surprised at was the extreme nature of it."

Lopach, who grew up in Great Falls, picked up the flavor of Eastern Montana political culture in 1973 when he worked with the first local government study commissions. Under Montana's 1972 Constitution, elected review commissions were mandated to study their existing government every 10 years and decide whether changes should be offered to the voters.

What citizens told these first study commissions was that they wanted to minimize their governments, Lopach said."

They didn't see government as important in their lives," he said. "There was a pronounced fear of interlocal or inter-governmental cooperation. There was always a fear that it would lead to too much government and a loss of control."

David Neiwert also remembers. He was on the beat at the time, waiting and watching during the long standoff. His comments are worth reading.

Really, it doesn't seem like it was ten years ago that I was freezing my ass off standing out in the eastern Montana plains watching a lot of other journalists do nothing but freeze their asses off, waiting for something, anything to happen at the Freemen compound near Brusett, just outside of Jordan.But damn, it was. Anything since then has been fun in comparison, so that may explain why time has flown by.
The elderly ranchers on whose property the standoff occurred served their sentences and have returned to the county, but the property is no longer theirs. Most of the radical "Freemen" themselves who were responsible for the standoff are still in prison, though a few are due to get out soon...
Certainly, the thing I remember best about the standoff were the journalists I met on my first day in Jordan who'd had their gear hijacked by the Freemen. They'd made the mistake of driving down the road past the Clark place, where the Freemen had put together a sentry post (complete with shooting positions) atop a hill overlooking the road, from which they would drive down and harass people. ...The other memorable part of this was watching the Freemen in court, expounding on their constitutionalist gobbledygook and frazzling the nerves of the normally decorous federal judges.

He concludes with something of a prophetic warning: really wasn't all that long ago that right-wing extremists were talking about revolution, threatening and sometimes killing federal officials, law enforcement officers, and innocent bystanders, attacking mainstream American values, and committing acts of domestic terrorism serially.

It's also worth remembering that they really haven't gone away, either. It seems that Democratic presidents in particular inspire their deepest paranoias; the next one is pretty certain to bring them back out of the woodwork, and perhaps stronger than ever.

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