It has been 20 years since the clash at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, an assault that led to the violent deaths of three human beings and a dog. Randy and Vicki Weaver, a Midwestern couple, had moved to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where they planned to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Then the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms entrapped Randy on a minor weapons violation and offered him a deal: The charge would be dismissed if he became an informant in white separatist circles. Instead Weaver skipped (or just missed) his trial (*) and moved his family to a cabin in the wilderness.
When federal agents arrived on the scene, they shot the family dog. The Weavers' son Sam, not realizing what was going on, fired a shot in response and then fled, at which point an agent shot him in the back. Kevin Harris, a visiting friend, fired at the attacking cops and killed one. The FBI's snipers went on to wound both Randy and Harris, and one of the sharpshooters killed Vicki, firing a bullet into her head while she held her 10-month-old daughter.
An 11-day standoff ensued. After Weaver surrendered, he and Harris were found innocent of murder. An internal report subsequently concluded that the FBI had violated the Weavers' constitutional rights. Some figures within the agency suspected that they were in the wrong well before then, though—a few days into the siege, Danny Coulson of the FBI wrote this in a memo:
Something to Consider
1. Charge against Weaver is Bull Shit.
2. No one saw Weaver do any shooting.
3. Vicki has no charges against her.
4. Weaver's defense. He ran down the hill to see what dog was barking at. Some guys in camys [camouflage] shot his dog. Started shooting at him. Killed his son. Harris did the shooting [of the FBI agent]. He [Randy Weaver] is in pretty strong legal position.
Not a bad summary.
It isn't hard to find examples of marginal groups whose paranoia about the government drove them to violence. The tale of the Weavers shows how the government's paranoia about marginal groups can drive it to violence, too. The feds looked at a family with fringy views and perceived a threat, and as a result a woman, a boy, a dog, and one of the government's own agents were killed. It wouldn't be the last time something like that happened. A year later in Waco, the Branch Davidians' paranoia would be no match for the paranoia of the Davidians' enemies.
I wish I could report that the authorities' fear has faded in the decades since Ruby Ridge and Waco. Instead it has been institutionalized in the fusion centers that litter the country, where everybody from Ron Paul fans to anti-fracking activists have been tarred as potential terrorists. Meanwhile, the country's police forces have been steadily more militarized. What a sad and terrifying combination.
Elsewhere in Reason: "The Paranoid Center."
(* I originally wrote that he simply skipped the trial, but a commenter reminds me that Weaver had been sent the wrong date. That said, Alan Bock's book on the standoff—which is in no sense sympathetic to the government—points out that there's a good chance Weaver wouldn't have shown up either way: "Randy later told friends that he was convinced he would be railroaded, that government witnesses would lie under oath, and that he would be convicted whether guilty or not." But even if Bock is right, the fact that Weaver wasn't told the right day for the court date he missed just underlines how over-the-top the government's reaction was.)