When I was a boy, my head stuffed with John Wayne movies and other tales of heroism from not-all-that-long-ago World War II, I used to set up my plastic army men in highly strategic fashion on rock outcroppings in vacant lots or patio walls. The correct placement of my men seemed crucial to the battle that would be unfolding, and I had particular fondness for one type of soldier who lay flat and outstretched on his stomach with a type of mini-machine gun in front of him, rattling away at the enemy while presenting the smallest possible target.
There weren’t many of him in any given soldier collection one bought at the neighborhood dime store in those pre-Walmart-and-Target days, so proper deployment was paramount. I remember always saving him for the choicest, most advantageous spots, me the general, the maestro, the master of my fantasy domain. And not unimportantly, a hero in my own mind.
I couldn’t help recalling that rich memory store when getting up to speed over the past couple of weeks on the seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The perps were self-styled “patriots” who were ostensibly asserting their “right” to federal land that they claim God and the U.S. Constitution intend for their personal use but which has been systematically usurped by an oppressive, overreaching government.
The squatters made loud noises about not being taken alive, about their willingness to endure the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their sacred commitment to all that is right and just.
Because of the outsized and obvious brazenness, the colossal chutzpah, the pretentiousness, the self-importance and self-pity, the appalling thievery of the language of civil rights and true war heroism and constitutional freedoms that Ritzheimer and his band of privileged white men applied to themselves.
Their self-narratives were rife with heroic imagery as they spoke to reporters, testified for their cause in videos, or cited various of their manifestos that laid out their case. Boiled down, that case essentially claimed their full right to do what they want in perpetuity, for free, on federal lands that are owned by you, me, and every other U.S. taxpayer, a group that is also known collectively as “the government.”
So there this ragtag group of 25 or so modern day revolutionaries spent their hours—and hours and hours—over the past weeks, playing a game of cowboy patriot with all the same fantasy and fervor I brought to bear on the soldier play of my boyhood. Masters of their freshly seized domain.
The difference is that their guns were real, and their fantasy didn’t get snapped back to the reality plane when their moms called them home to dinner. But gosh, did it ever have an unreal air.
The surreal absurdity of this occupation and its underlying delusions were probably displayed most revealingly in a video made of Arizona “militia” man Jon Ritzheimer, an ex-U.S. Marine with a tour of duty in Iraq on his resume, 3- and 5-year-old daughters and a wife at home, and a woebegone, hound dog expression on his face as he tearfully bids good-bye to this life and all he loves in the service of a higher calling to justice.
Apparently, he fully expected his death was imminent as tensions heightened at the site. So this video would be his last word for posterity. (He wound up leaving the compound before the hostilities that did kill his compatriot Robert “LaVoy” Finicum in a shootout with the FBI.)
You may want to view the 3-minute, pathos-drenched clip here below or loop back to it later, but it is, as the saying goes, “a piece of work” that I daresay may hold up over time as a highly peculiar reflection of all that can become twisted and (irrationally) rationalized in the human mind.
With my first viewing of Ritzheimer’s video, I was struck by how much the language and tone represented, albeit in simple terms, the best, deepest themes of tragic sacrifice. Viewed in isolation, without any context, the clip presents as heart-felt and heroic, an almost unbearably sad soldier agonizingly bidding adieu, facing his mortality for the sake of an immortal ideal.
Taking one for his country and its highest aspirations of freedom—like Gettysburg, Gallipoli and Iwo Jima all rolled into one in the southern Oregon desert.
So then why was I, odd as it seemed even to myself, laughing through the whole thing?
Here’s why: Because of the outsized and obvious brazenness, the colossal chutzpah, the pretentiousness, the self-importance and self-pity, the appalling thievery of the language of civil rights and true war heroism and constitutional freedoms that Ritzheimer and his band of privileged white men applied to themselves.
One does not come across breathtaking gall like this every day.
In all their communications, Malheur squatters fancied themselves as brave desperadoes standing up to tyranny, as if they were Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King rather than well-fed white men who have always been free of chains, free to go where they want, drink out of every fountain, go into every restaurant, buy any property, and even take over public lands to squat for weeks, all while heavily armed and openly warning the government they were prepared to shoot back upon the merest intervention.
It requires copious twistings of both logic and stubborn facts to feign an “oppression” of their supposedly sacred “right” to graze their cows for free on public lands, or for their miner friends to freely extract minerals from the earth. The whole collective lot of them have been sucking on the teat obligingly provided by government officials in the past, who had finally seen fit to bring such largesse to an end for the greater good of the 320 million or so other Americans who also “own” those lands.
Here’s how the Bundy family, the de-facto head honchos of this Malheur insurrection via patriarch Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon, frames the main issue in one of its blog “manifestos”:
We the People, being free, have need to defend our freedom from time to time against those who would violate our rights as defined by our Creator. It is an arduous task to constantly be on guard in the protection of our life, our family, and our means of providing a living.
All the land that the federal government now claims, i.e., BLM, Forest Service, Monuments, Recreation areas, Wilderness, Reclamation areas, Wildlife refuges, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), National parks, etc., are all unconstitutional! None of them fit within the boundaries of the Constitution. It is simple; the land belongs to the People!…
Which people? Well, the Bundys and their like-minded friends, apparently. Never mind all those other people using the Malheur property and other lands across the U.S. for camping, hiking, birding, photography or wildlife gazing or just for lying on a blanket watching the clouds.
The Bundys have hungry cows and guns, and a willingness to die or be imprisoned for their purported right to use “the people’s” land for their own purposes. And no one had better dare stop them or charge them a fee for doing so.
And finally, this basic declaration of war if the state fails to protect them from federal incursion and refuses to see the situation from the Bundys’ lofty perspective:
It is time to stop allowing the federal government to violate these sacred liberties. We the People desperately need your protection. If you will not fulfill your constitutional duties the people are exposed to suffer oppression, and the power of the State reverting to an all-powerful central government becomes a reality, more than it already is. If you, as leaders of a sovereign State will not protect the people’s rights, then We the People will have to do it ourselves and replace you with others who will stand for our future.
Religion, of course—or at least the occupiers’ version of it—oozes its way into nearly every one of their rationales. According to his own video report, lead insurrectionist Ammon Bundy had prayed for divine guidance on the matter, and this is how it went:
“I got on my knees and asked the Lord, I said, Lord, if you want me to write something, please help me clear my mind, and show me what I should write. I began to understand what the Lord felt about Harney County, and about the country. I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased about what was happening…I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do. I did it the way he asked me, the best I could.”
He then ends with this exhortation to the larger world:
“Come to Harney County Oregon and participate in this wonderful thing that the Lord is about to accomplish.”
“Wonderful thing” being an armed takeover of public lands and an open invitation for and threat of deadly violence if law enforcement responds.
In deference to mainstream Mormonism, which has been duly horrified by the antics of the Bundy clan (much as mainstream Islam disavows the terrorism done under its name), the media have trod lightly on the readings of Mormon theology and history that the Bundys and their fellow travelers call upon in supporting their case for what they see as armed, God-sanctioned resistance to government oppression.
Contemporary Mormonism has evolved in its selective emphases on founder Joseph Smith’s more genteel proclamations while subtly ignoring the more outrageous aspects of his call to religious arms. (In one debate with a church leader regarding capital punishment, Smith was reported to have made a case against merely hanging a convict by saying he preferred to “shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God.”)
But regardless of the Bundys’ insistence on adhering to a version of primitive Mormonism, their falling back on a claim that God has sanctioned their political views and activities, thus making of them a matter of religion-inspired patriotism rather than naked ambition and greed, is a scandal as old as religion itself.
There is simply never any response possible when one’s opponent in some human conflict invokes God as his ultimate authority and supporter.
Well wait, let me correct that. There is one response that has been invoked more than once in humankind’s less-than-illustrious history of warfare—particularly wars with a religious bent:
“That can’t be, because God told me the exact opposite.”
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Toy soldiers photo near top of page by Carl Jones, Pwllheli, Wales, UK, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/_belial/
Ammon Bundy caricature by DonkeyHotey, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/
Photos of mule deer and avocet with chicks at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/