A little over 22 years ago, shooting broke out on a lonely Idaho mountaintop known as Ruby Ridge. The violence left a U.S. marshal and a 14-year-old boy dead, led to the death of the boy’s mother in the 11-day standoff that followed, and became, in the end, a seminal lesson in how law enforcement should not act in such situations.
Earlier this week, Retro Report, a critically acclaimed video documentary series that is distributed by The New York Times, released a thoughtful piece re-examining the 1992 FBI siege of a cabin inhabited by white supremacist Randy Weaver and his family. In the aftermath of that siege, which helped spark the militia movement of the 1990s, Weaver and another man who was in the cabin were acquitted of the murder of Marshal William Degan, and the federal government ultimately paid the surviving Weavers $3.1 million to settle their countervailing legal claims.
The film features Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of its investigative magazine, Intelligence Report. “The Ruby Ridge standoff became a kind of founding myth of the radical right,” Potok says in the film. “It not only made the government look bad, it was bad. People, whatever views they had, whatever illegal activities they had [engaged in], should not be shot down by government snipers when they are not actively threatening the life of somebody.”
Others interviewed for the 13-minute documentary include Sara Weaver, who was just 16 when she holed up with her family in their rough-hewn cabin, and an FBI sharpshooter who was one of the scores of law enforcement officials at the scene.
The film examines the effect of the standoff, along with a far deadlier standoff in Waco, Texas, the following year, on law enforcement tactics going forward. It mentions later confrontations including an 81-day standoff in 1996 between federal agents and the so-called Montana Freemen, and another that began in 2000 with another antigovernment radical, John Joe Gray, who refused to go to court to face charges of biting a police officer. Local sheriffs near Gray’s remote Texas home, where he is still holed up with his family today, have repeatedly said that arresting Gray is not worth another potential Waco.