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Editorial: After the Climbdown

Surely, the government planners didn’t see this coming.

Surely, the government planners didn’t see this coming.

And yet, in retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that Cliven Bundy, a radical Nevada rancher who’d refused to pay his cattle grazing fees for two decades, called in the militias and other extremists for backup when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finally moved in to seize his cattle.

What was shocking was the way those extremists, armed to the teeth and several hundred strong, faced down law enforcement officials with the BLM and the Las Vegas Police Department in April and forced them to withdraw. The government, facing a potential bloodbath, wisely decided to wait for another, less dangerous day. Any consequences for those who pointed their weapons at law enforcement officials, a felony punishable by 20 years in prison, would have to wait for the outcome of a criminal investigation that is now under way.

What does it mean that a scofflaw like Bundy — a man who refused to pay for what his cattle had consumed under the very generous terms of the federal grazing program — managed to get away with it, at least for the time being?

The answer is simple, and it is deeply worrying. The federal withdrawal from the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., has reinvigorated an extremist movement that exploded after Barack Obama was first elected president, going from about 150 antigovernment “Patriot” groups, or militias, in 2008 to more than 1,000 last year. In the months since the extremists’ “victory,” more tense standoffs between the BLM and antigovernment activists have taken place across the West — in Idaho, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. In a related development, about 10 militia groups have put armed vigilantes on the Texas border in response to the news that more than 50,000 unaccompanied minor immigrants have arrived there in recent months.

The dispute between Bundy and his followers and the government is only the latest right-wing attempt to contest federal authority over public lands. In many ways, it is an extension of the earlier Sagebrush Rebellion and the Wise Use and “county supremacy” movements. But it comes at a particularly dangerous time, after several years of mounting far-right fury at Obama and government in general.

There have been 17 shooting incidents between law enforcement officials and antigovernment extremists since 2009. A large number of criminal plots have targeted cities, police, churches, Muslims and others. Since the mass murder of 9/11, homegrown extremists have killed more Americans than Muslim jihadists, as several analyses by terrorism experts have clearly shown.

And in June, an encounter with two Bundy supporters ended with three victims dead. Jerad and Amanda Miller, who had spent time at the ranch in the days leading up to the government climbdown, murdered two Las Vegas police officers and another man before dying themselves in a shootout with police. They left behind a note that said the revolution had begun, and draped the body of one of the officers they killed with the same Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that many Bundy supporters had waved during the April ranch standoff.

Cliven Bundy may have faded from public view since that time, but the movement that spawned him is boiling. Government officials need to understand what motivates this movement because the Millers will not be the last to demonstrate their antigovernment rage with bullets. Law enforcement officials also need training on a movement that increasingly targets them.

The recent announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department is reviving its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee is welcome news. The committee, established after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing but allowed to go fallow after the 9/11 attacks, was important in stemming the tide of antigovernment criminal activity and is needed again. In addition, the militiamen and others who pointed weapons at BLM and Las Vegas officers must face prosecution or the rule of law will be challenged again.

That is only part of the answer. Unlike the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security is an intelligence-gathering agency. To help law enforcement at all levels, it needs to rebuild its team for analyzing non-Islamic domestic terrorism. That team, faced with conservative criticism after the leak of its 2009 report on the radical right, was subsequently allowed to wither.

Finally, politicians and media pundits need to be called out when they pander for votes or ratings with irresponsible rhetoric like that which initially lionized Bundy as some kind of hero standing up for American liberty and the Constitution. No matter what the politicians and the Sean Hannitys of the world claim, Cliven Bundy is no freedom fighter. Treating him like he is only emboldens others to follow in his dangerous footsteps.