As a boy that grew up scampering through the sage brush on the hills above the school, when we stopped for a bathroom break on one of our early camping trips, my first thought was to duck under the barbed-wire fence and wander in the woods it protected. I was tame enough to check first with my mother, who drew my attention to the sign:


Violators will be shot on sight

 “Don’t they have to give you a warning first?”

“That is the warning,” my father observed.

Looking up and down the lonely road, I thought, “But what if their car broke down and they need help?”

It was my first collision with the thought that property ownership trumped human life, and I was a little shaken by the experience.

I don’t see the signs much in my area any more – perhaps because most of the agriculture and ranching has disappeared. But technology may also have something to do with it: with helicopters and radio trackers, it’s probably pretty hard for cattle rustlers to disappear into the wilderness, and aerial crop dusting probably dissuades most casual fruit pickers. The spread of drone aircraft will also make easier to bring thieves to justice without risk of a confrontation.

It was only later that I learned that these signs were also posted frequently by those engaged in illegal activity. The classic image is the moonshine distiller or hillbilly sending off the “revenooer.” But I was confronted by another case when working on a friend’s deck up in Redding one summer. A piercing scream of terror came from the house across the fence – but there was the sign. None of the locals so much as turned a head in concern. I guess it wasn’t the first time.

The Bundy Family now camped out at the Wildlife Refuge in Oregon says that they are “defending their way of life.” One of their number, finding himself in the minority in a discussion of violent confrontation, went out to make a stand in the cold, observing that he had grown up with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face, and he would rather die than spend a single day in jail. On hearing this, I thought of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. A defense industry engineer, laid off and denied visitation rights to his child, trades in weapons in an escalating rampage, finally being gunned down before his daughter.

The Sheriff in Oregon has asked the invaders to leave, observing that they don’t have the right to come in with their guns and tell them how to live. But I wonder if anybody has asked the Bundy’s to consider what would happen if we all chose to act as they did. Will they take cause with the older software developer, defaulting on his mortgage because ageism makes it difficult to find employment?

The scariest exhibition, however, was the Alabama legislator who avowed on national television last night that the reason we have remained a democracy is because our government is afraid to confront its armed citizens. Comparing the M-1 Abrams tank and fighter jets to the hand-held weaponry in the homes of our citizen militias, we might draw a comparison with the armed knights of the middle age and every farmer with a pitchfork. Comparable parity of weaponry in the Middle Ages did not deter tyranny, nor does it do so today.

The Founders designed an institutional system that pitted the three branches of government against each other in a federation of states with their own security services. This institutional competition was designed to prevent any one branch or level of government from being able to impose its will on citizens. That the legislator suffers from a such a deep misunderstanding of how our constitutional system safeguards our liberties is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this situation, particularly because it has often been the Federal Government that has stepped in to ensure the rights of those intimidated by state and local authorities.

Devolving coercive power down to the citizens seems to promise only that those that relish and glorify violence will be able to terrorize those that don’t. We’ve worked long and hard to escape that condition. Why give in to it now?

Give Me Liberty, and Forgive My Threats

As I was studying Microsoft’s support for XML Paper Specification last week, for some reason I choose the Gettysburg address as lorem ipsum source material. Lincoln’s great address begins:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

It was not the first time that the proposition had been tested. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Europe brought financial pressure on the new nation by refusing to extend credit to its merchants. That class also held a great deal of the debt for the war, and sought to avoid bankruptcy by passing hard credit terms on to subsistence farmers that previously settled their debt in goods. In Massachusetts, the farmers gathered together against the state militia in 1891 in an action known as Shay’s Rebellion, eventually forcing the merchants to relent. Similarly, grain farmers in the western territories rose in the Whiskey Rebellion in an attempt to force the repeal of a tax on whiskey, which served popularly as a means of concentrating grain for transport. It was repeated in the early 1900’s, when the coal mine owners brought in armed guards on rail cars to gun down striking workers.

The central question in all of these cases was how to balance personal property rights against the obligations of the nation to foster the security and survival of its citizens. Over time, the problem of survival has expanded from immediate threat to specific individuals or populations to include sustainability of the social system as a whole. Environmental legislation, financial regulation, immunization laws and social security taxes are all part of that expanded scope.

The appeal of liberty, however, is central to us as a people. Survival is not enough if it comes at the cost of leading lives without hope of meaningful personal accomplishment, and that requires the freedom to make our lives unique. Rules and regulations constraint our latitude. They force our lives into patterned molds.

At my current place of employment, during a cash crunch, the owner complained about the expense of “government” regulations that set minimum landscaping requirements. Walking later in the parking lot, I looked up at the hills, lined with high-end housing, and thought, “Well, that’s your ‘government’ – it’s your neighbors trying to protect the value of their housing.”

There is an essential difference between those that decry government regulation that frustrates their ambitions and those that face poverty and death due to regressive policies that sustain a privileged elite.

Among that elite are families that have title to use federal lands for private commerce. They pay fees to the Bureau of Land Management that monitors their usage to ensure that the land is not damaged or misused – for example, for gold mining rather than the allowed ranching.

We have in the news today two stories of ranchers facing governmental sanctions for misuse of their land rights. In Washington, the Hammond family set a fire to clear invasive brush that was impeding their cattle grazing. The fire spread to federal land, damaging the forest. The Hammonds, known for their support of charity, were given light sentences. Unfortunately, the terms did not meet minimum sentencing guidelines, and they are voluntarily surrendering themselves to serve up to four more years. The elder Hammond “hopes” that he still has a ranch upon his release.

In Nevada, the Bundy family runs a ranch on federal land, owing more than a million dollars in unpaid land use fees. Their response to Land Management actions to settle the arrears was to claim that federal ownership of the land was unconstitutional, and to call upon a posse of extremists from across the West to help them prevent the seizure of their cattle. Faced with a gang toting military assault-style weapons, the BLM backed off.

Emboldened by their victory, the Bundy family has intervened in the Hammond case, gathering a portion of their posse to seize a tourist center on federal land in Washington State.

The Bundy clan justifies its constitutional claims on a specific interpretation of the process used by the Western states to gain statehood. In that era, much of the West’s population was concentrated in cities. The states ceded control of the wild areas to federal control. The Bundy interpretation is that the federal government coerced the transfer of land. The rational interpretation is that the states did not have means to police the wild places, often occupied by hostile natives and outlaws, and so chose to ensure that management of the land was in federal hands, and so financed by the Eastern elites that were interested in securing the continent.

In the intervening years, the civilized West entered an epoch of regulated access sustained by usage fees. The cavalry forts were replaced by tourist centers and ranger stations. Perhaps too soon: the Bundy clan and their ilk are outlaws with modern weapons. Rather than threatened patriots seeking to ensure their voices are not forgotten in the halls of power, they are failed businessmen using the threat of violence to force others to support their privilege.

They should not be forgiven, and as Lincoln said, if they are not brought to heel, the very basis of our system of government is called into doubt.