Juliette Kayyem: There is no justifying what the armed group did in Oregon
She says federal officials should be patient, time is on their side.
Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the “Security Mom” podcast and author of a forthcoming book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Who the heck do they think they are?
Let’s begin with what to call the Oregon anti-government protesters who have taken over a federal building. The men, heavily armed, urging others to come support their cause, and claiming somehow that, while peaceful, they will “defend” themselves whatever it takes, are – by any definition – domestic terrorists.
It does not matter that they insist they are peaceful or some sort of lawful militia; I can claim I’m 26 years old and a size 2 and that still doesn’t make it true. This group of men is wielding terror, and the threat of violence, as if it were their constitutional right.
So, let’s stop with the wrenching discussions of who they are.
They are dangerous, they are unforgiving, they are flouting federal law, they have a political purpose and they clearly are willing to use violence to get their way. Simply because they are not Muslim jihadists does not mean they are authorized to threaten or use violence to support their political cause.
To decipher their cause is difficult, but it appears they do not like the fact that one of their rancher kin is going to jail for arson because he didn’t want to sell his land. Only the most ardent backers of their causes or those with an anti-federal government paranoia (or an anti-Obama one) are trying to slice and dice what the group is doing to make it seem somehow benign. It is not.
Don’t take my word for it. Ammon Bundy, the 40-year-old son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who is well-known for anti-government action, exposed his own sense that they were in an armed conflict when, after refusing to answer a CNN reporter’s question about how many people were with bunkered down with him, he said he did not want to risk exposing “operational security.” Operational security? We are not in Iraq.
What to do
Given that their aim amounts to domestic terrorism, any strategy to get them out of the building must, then, take into account a number of federal concerns and priorities.
Violence should be avoided at all costs. Do not turn these men into martyrs or heroes by excessive force or unnecessary violence. And, in the process of resolving the standoff, teach them (and others) a lesson or two.
How do the feds do that?
First, time is on their side. No question about that. In the absence of an imminent threat to children, bystanders or captives, the federal response should be akin to, “We got all day. And night. And another day. And are you getting hungry? Possibly thirsty? Bored? Are you wondering why you are here in the first place? We got all day. And another one after that.”
Immediate action is unwarranted and unnecessary; Bundy’s call to brethren to join him will be met with a fierce resistance by public safety officials who will not allow anyone else in and will arrest any of them for conspiracy to support a federal crime.
The situation is wholly different from the Waco siege in 1993, when a 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas ended in tragedy after the FBI mounted an assault, fires set by the Branch Davidians broke out and 75 people perished. Much is still in dispute in that case, but federal authorities believed that children and captive civilians were in immediate risk of death.
Second, divide and conquer. With time, the opportunity to separate the group, offer carrots and sticks to some so they disarm and surrender, becomes available. Federal authorities can offer reduced sentences, even misdemeanor charges, against anyone barricaded who may not want to go to jail for a lot of years based on the call to arms of Bundy.
If a federal agent or public safety official is harmed or killed during any siege, the federal authorities should remind those inside that they will all be accomplices to first-degree murder. Over time, Bundy may find it difficult to keep his troops unified. Again, time is on the federal authorities’ side.
Rule of law is paramount
Finally, while the presence of federal troops might make the situation more tense than it already is, the Obama administration needs to make a statement with this organization and future domestic terrorists.
Various federal authorities are now in charge, but the administration should be ready to mobilize federal military support should they need it, if only for the long haul. And to make an important point that the rule of law is paramount in a civil, democratic society.
Local law enforcement officials, in such an isolated area of Oregon, are likely to know some of these men and could let their perspective be colored by their relationships, either to be too lenient or to want to vigorously uphold the law against such flagrant actions. There are risks if too much emotion is allowed to seep into the decision-making process.
A show of federal force – even if just for show – treats these men as they should be treated: domestic terrorists who are putting the whole community at risk.
Again, time is on the responders’ side. Use it. Indeed, if Waco serves as a “what not to do” in such a situation, it is a reminder of how too aggressive a response can turn Bundy and his crew into martyrs.
It was the Waco siege that radicalized a different round of domestic terrorists, mainly those who planned the Oklahoma federal building bombing in 1995, two years to the day that Waco burned.
Seeing the government response to the blizzard has, at least for now, quieted much of the talk of incompetent and corrupt government that we’ve been hearing from the campaign trail. It will no doubt be back. But in the meantime, there is nothing that breaks political deadlock quite like a couple of feet of snow.