A standoff between self-styled American militiamen and local law enforcement near the town of Burns, Oregon, has entered its fifth day. On Jan. 2, armed protesters occupied the federal park headquarters in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and informed local officials they would not be moving anytime soon.
While currently peaceful, the gun-toting men and women say they were inspired by the prosecution of two area ranchers who set fires that spread onto federally owned land. The charges against Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond appear to have been merely a pretext, however. The group is spearheaded by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who made headlines of his own two years ago. Bundy Sr. executed a similar standoff in April 2014 after federal government officials attempted to remove some of his cattle from federally owned land. The protesters seem to no longer be motivated by the welfare of the convicted ranchers (who, it’s worth noting, may have set fire to federal land in order to cover up poaching).
Indeed, in a phone interview conducted by The Oregonian, the Bundys mentioned the Hammonds only once. And in addition to their demand that the ranchers be released from federal custody, they called on the government to turn over control of the Malheur National Forest. “We’re planning on staying here for years,” Ammon Bundy said. “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”
It’s easy to dismiss these guys as outliers, a group of crazed, Second Amendment fanatics run amok in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest. But it’s also important to understand what underpins the Bundy family’s antics. Because these gun-toting ranchers are an outgrowth of something quite insidious—and uniquely American.
Manifest destiny, for those unfamiliar with term (i.e., not educated at a US high school), is the philosophical concept that inspired America’s early territorial growth in the 19th century. Employed as a cultural justification for the westward expansion of the United States, manifest destiny held that the American people possessed an innate, special (often described as divinely ordained) set of virtues that entitled them to the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s what drove settlers down the Oregon Trail, secured the Mexican Cession, and brought about the incorporation of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
At the time, people were intoxicated with the idea of continentalism. But the reality was far from romantic. The land gobbled up by continentalist settlers wasn’t unoccupied, after all, forever intertwining the grand destiny of white America with the terrible fate of the American Indian.
It is this same sense of noxious entitlement that lives on in Cliven Bundy, and in the countless other anti-government elements advocating against government land-ownership in the American West.
Land rights are complex, as are the rules that govern what is considered public and private land. Some of these rules can and should be interrogated. The federal government owns an absurd amount of territory, some of which could surely be put to use benefitting struggling agricultural outfits.
But a substantial amount of federal land ownership is essential to maintaining what’s left of this country’s ecological integrity—something we nearly destroyed in our slash-and-burn, 19th-century westward foray. And should federal ownership be surrendered (an extreme hypothetical), what’s to stop characters like the Bundy clan from seeking more? What’s to stop them, for example, from demanding the rights to federally protected Native land?
At the end of the day, the Bundys seem to care less about the preservation of constitutional rights and more about the preservation of their own right to use land, wherever and however they might wish. It’s about money and profits and feeling entitled to resources in a land that was never theirs to begin with. For all his “pioneer mentality,” Cliven Bundy is a hardly a struggling frontiersman. These men are driven by the same greed and narcissism that inspired the original seizure of Native American land and usurpation of non-American sovereignty.
Dismiss them as one-offs at your own peril.
Unfortunately, these constitutional-illiterates speak for a lot of ignorant people—the heirs to manifest destiny are plentiful and opinionated and loud. Regardless of your feelings on federal land ownership, this is a cultural poison that must be contained. It’s a mess centuries in the making, and we’re still struggling to clean it up.