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Rand Paul, White House, Want Oregon Standoff Resolved Cautiously. Why Don't More Liberals Agree?

Relentlessly demonizing misunderstood opponents is a bad idea.

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Bundy
CBS

Various Republican candidates are calling for a peaceful resolution to the armed occupation of a remote federal outpost in Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Rand Paul had this to say, according to The Washington Post:

"I'm sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics," Paul told the Washington Post in an interview. "That's why I entered the electoral arena. I don't support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy."

Sen. Ted Cruz called on the protesters to "stand down peaceably." Sen. Marco Rubio urged them to "follow the law."

The White House maintains the standoff is a matter for local authorities, and has urged caution. Given that no one's life is currently threatened by the antics of the Bundy family, this restrained approach seems especially wise.

It's a shame, then, that so many left-leaning commentators—having branded the ranchers as a bunch of terrorists intent on committing imminent violence—seem dismissive, or at least dissatisfied, with this wait-and-see approach. The Daily Beast's Sally Kohn has accused the federal government of encouraging right-wing militias by failing to crackdown on them with extreme prejudice. Kohn claims that authorities should have thrown the book at Cliven Bundy and his supporters after the previous standoff. "Talk about being 'soft on terrorism'," she writes:

What's even more disturbing, perhaps, is that nothing has changed in terms of the federal government's hyper-passive response to such flagrant acts of menacing and threats of domestic terrorism.

The Department of Justice did, wisely, revive the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee—recognizing the need to defend against and prevent the very real and comparable threat posed, for instance, by mostly white anti-government zealots and not just Muslim radicals. Yet the FBI said it was seeking a "peaceful" end to the standoff, and there are reportedly no signs of law enforcement being anywhere near the building. So maybe it's not even a "standoff" if the federal government is standing down.

Of course there's a strategic case to be made for a cautious approach on the part of the federal government that doesn't escalate violence nor feed a cult of martyrdom within the anti-government extremist movement as happened after Ruby Ridge and Waco. That would seem jarring enough juxtaposed with the violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims. But in the face of the very direct connection between the Bundy conflict and the Oregon standoff, and the SPLC's evidence that the government's non-response simply gave anti-government extremists more power, the government now seems naïve about right-wing extremism at best and encouraging at worst.

Since Kohn references the "violent over-policing of black Americans and conservative calls for blanket scrutiny against all Muslims," one might expect her to better understand why relentlessly demonizing misunderstood groups and exaggerating the threat they pose is a bad thing. I suspect she can't see beyond her own partisan lens: the left-leaning protesters she respects and agrees with are innocent victims, the right-leaning protesters she despises are a threat to the republic.

It's important to note that this is the same kind of paranoia about "the other" that animates Donald Trump and his supporters. The calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and the calls to crack down on right-wing militias aren't so different from one another, even though they come from distinct ideological groups with almost no overlap. I would say to both groups that there is just as much danger—if not more danger—in counselling the government to overreact to perceived threats. Advocates of saner government have little to gain, and a lot to lose, by distorting the definition of the word terrorist to include the likes of the Bundys and Hammonds.

For more on this subject, read Jacob Sullum, Ed Krayewski, and me.