Yes, the Feds Had a Plan for Malheur

One of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is dead after a shoot-out with federal and state authorities. Eight of the crew, including ringleader Ammon Bundy and his brother, were pulled over while driving to a meeting in a neighboring county. Five of the survivors, including the Bundys, have been arrested, and a sixth man was arrested in a nearby town. The officers had arrest warrants charging several of the occupants of the car with “conspiracy to impede or injure an officer,” a less serious charge than “seditious conspiracy” but still good for up to six years.

It’s possible that they’re in much worse legal trouble than that: the death of their co-conspirator might well be covered by the felony murder rule.  The fact that the person killed was one of them has no legal significance; in general, if a group of people agrees to commit a felony which could reasonably be expected to put lives at risk, and someone dies, all are liable to the charge of first-degree murder.

The feds have announced that the remaining occupiers are free to leave the refuge: as long as they do so at once.

In the aftermath of the takeover, there was considerable grumbling that the Administration had not moved with sufficient force to retake federal property, especially after having been forced to back down in the Bundy Ranch confrontation.  But it looks as if slow-walking the process worked well, giving the occupiers time to become a national laughingstock.

A recent story focused on the activities of the Hammonds, whose five-prison sentences this crew was protesting, made it appear that the Hammonds got no more than they deserved after a long career of not only ignoring the law but threatening violence against those who were trying to carry it out. In polite company, one does not threaten to wrap a man’s son in barbed wire and throw him down a well. So far as I know, none of the pundits and politicians who expressed sympathy for the Hammonds – all, for some reason, on the Red Team – have expressed any sympathy for the federal officials they terrorized for years.

In this case, both the local sheriff and the governor of the state were on the side of sanity. Unfortunately, that was not the case in the Bundy Ranch confrontation. Of course I hope that the feds have a plan in their back pocket to collect the judgment against Cliven Bundy, and even perhaps a plan to indict, arrest, and try some of the people who pointed loaded weapons at federal law enforcement agents two years ago. But I’m not sorry that a bloodbath was avoided, even at some damage to the majesty of the law. And while I can’t imagine that Barack Obama or Attorney General Loretta Lynch will ever claim – or get – the credit for how deftly the current confrontation was managed, they amply deserve it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.