20 Years After Ruby Ridge, Newspapers and Hatewatch Groups Can't Quite Bring Themselves to Fully Describe the Government Screw-Up


As Jesse Walker noted earlier, it's been two decades since the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho; that snowballing disaster that stemmed from what was supposed to be a minor weapons charge against Randy Weaver.

Twenty years after FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot her mother in the head in front of her, eldest Weaver daughter Sara is more at ease, greatly thanks to her born again Christianity. Getting over that loss, as well as the death of her little brother — shot by a U.S. marshal the day before her mother was killed —took her many years, but she seems to be at peace.

After reading various optimistic news reports on Sara's progress, it's frustrating, though not surprising, that the usual anti-anti-government suspects quoted in these articles about Ruby Ridge are so unwilling to admit to the level of negligence involved in the FBI's dealing with one little family. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is currently ironically defending itsself against charges that its description of the Family Research Council as a hate group is what inspired alleged shooter Floyd Lee Corkins II to wound a security guard there last week, is quoted in several stories on the anniversary. In one,  Potok declares that "Ruby Ridge was the opening shot of a new era of anti-government hatred not seen since the Civil War" which is a bit offensive, to spin a tragedy where people died into a mere sign-post for the rise of '90s boogie-men militia groups. But that is what happened to both Ruby Ridge and Waco, which is certainly another thing on which to (greatly) blame Timothy McVeigh. Sara Weaver says she was, and continues to be, horrified that McVeigh used her family's tragedy, and that of the Branch Davidians, to justify killing 165 people. That's bad enough, but in so many mentions of the tragedy, it feels like McVeigh's actions completely drowned out the injustices that inspired them. Now, to be angry about Waco and Ruby Ridge is to be painted with the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League and other hatewatch groups' broad brushes.

This Spokesman-Review editorial notes that law enforcement overreaction helped cause the tragedy at Ruby Ridge, and Waco, eventually leading to McVeigh's attempted "revenge" at Oklahoma City. Yet, is it intellectually honest to describe the matriarch of the family as dying in "a second burst of gunfire" when, if not certain about all the details, we're quite certain that FBI sniper Horiuchi shot Vicky Weaver in the head while she held her youngest child? Why detail the family and Northern Idaho's unpleasant ties with racist groups, but wave over the details of who died and exactly how? This vagueness is not uncommon when talking about both Waco and Ruby Ridge, but it's frustrating every time, especially when contrasted with the societal obsession towards remembering soldiers and cops who died in the line of duty. 

Still, the most jaw-droopingly clunky summary of The Meaning Of All This comes from Daryl Johnson, author of a forthcoming book about right wing threats, with a forward by the SPLC's Potok. Johnson is currently in private terrorism consulting, but he used to do a similar job for the FBI and the ATF. And either their rhetoric really rubbed off on him, or the author of this Idaho Spokesman-Review piece forgot that the key to writing is not to use the same word over and over again. The word chosen by both, unsurprisingly, was "extremist." And Reason readers will be pleased to know that not only is being peeved about Ruby Ridge the sign of such radicalism— so is worrying over:

what some describe as a militarization of law enforcement at all levels, including federal agencies.

"For American extremists, the siege at Ruby Ridge symbolizes the 'militarized police state,'" said [Johnson].

Johnson is the author of a soon-to-be released book, "Right Wing Resurgence," that addresses how, in his opinion, domestic extremist threats aren't being taken seriously enough at the highest levels in the U.S. government. He owns a private consulting firm, DT Analytics, that monitors domestic extremist activity and provides specialized training to law enforcement.

The U.S. government, through its Department of Homeland Security in particular, Johnson said, "has unintentionally fostered, and even solidified, Orwellian conspiracies concerning an overzealous, oppressive federal government and its perceived willingness to kill to ensure citizen compliance."

"In the minds of modern-day extremists, (Homeland Security) has enhanced the lethal capability of many underfunded, small-town police forces through its grant programs," Johnson said.

Using federal grants, state and local law enforcement agencies have been able to buy expensive equipment and training that are "commonly associated with the military," he said.

"Extremists view such a security buildup as a continuation of the Ruby Ridge legacy," Johnson said.

That legacy is a continuing drumbeat for extremists and white supremacists who recruit with the message of "big government versus the little guy" and "the government set me up," Johnson said.

These extremist ideas continue as messages and even recruiting themes among various radical groups in the United States, he said.

Reason covered Ruby Ridge way back in the day. We're also the sorts of extremists who heavily cover the militarization of police, entirely free of scare quotes.

By the way, for my money, the best summation of Ruby Ridge is still Jess Walter's Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family. No punches are pulled when it comes to the family's racist inclinations, but more importantly, the government's criminal negligence and cover-up are described by Walter in excellent, damning detail.