As around a dozen armed protesters gathered at the unoccupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon, angry over the federal government’s resentencing of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond in an arson case related to locally-controversial Bureau of Land Management regulations on land use, the mainstream media cast aside its journalistic responsibility and instead took on the more profitable role of a fight promoter.
The sum of the deceptive click-bait headlines swirling through the news cycle painted the event as that of a 150-man armed militia storming a “federal building” at gunpoint and seizing it, a choice of words that seemed to de-emphasize the fact that the protest was taking place at a small, unoccupied welcome center to a wildlife refuge with no one at the time under any imminent danger and instead called to mind an invasion of a federal building like the one targeted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Consequently, the Twitter hashtag #YallQaeda emerged, oddly implying that this distinctly western dispute has something to do with the deep south where the word “y’all” is a part of the common vernacular, with some social media users rallying behind it and implying or directly stating that the protesters are domestic terrorists.
To be fair, some of the commentators were equipped with good points: it is undeniably true that people of color face disproportionately higher rates of police abuse. It is undeniably the case that police reforms need to take place across the country to ensure that African Americans, for example, are not assumed to be a threat to law enforcement just on the basis of race.
It is also certainly the case that the War on Terror has driven America to a hysterical level of suspicion towards Muslims, and this has created a civil rights crisis. In setting aside the classification “terrorist” as distinct from all other alleged crimes in how the federal government’s due process rights apply, Muslims have been executed without a trial (in the case of then 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki), denied the right to fly without due process, and detained indefinitely without charges.
However, these are good arguments for ending mandatory minimums in the case of the disproportionate numbers of people of color being incarcerated under the War on Drugs, not an argument for applying mandatory minimums to the Hammond family in the interest of fairness. These are also good arguments for repealing the War on Drugs and the War on Terror and their assaults against the human rights traditions of American jurisprudence, not arguments for strengthening and extending these abuses to additional demographic categories to even the score.
The dream of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was to extend American freedom and opportunity to everyone, not to expand race-based crackdowns to all Americans.
Conservatives should learn a lesson from what is happening in Oregon. Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem about the rise of Naziism in Germany specifically — and the erosion of civil liberties more generally — warned, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew… Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
For every meme a conservative shares on social media characterizing Black Lives Matter protesters as thugs or local Muslims attempting to break ground on a new mosque as terrorists, it must be assumed that there will be an equal and opposite number of people subsequently calling for open carry protesters or pro-lifers to be shot on sight or incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.
The government could very well referee this conflict by some day giving both sides what they want.
On the other hand, in supporting the application of mandatory minimums to the Hammond family against a judge’s objections and characterizing protesters gathering on federal property and refusing to leave as an insurrection, many left-leaning commentators are by precedent calling for an undoing of the hard work that has been done so far to affect criminal justice reform in this country and are putting future Black Lives Matter protesters who might want to make their point by gathering on federal property and refusing to leave at risk of being victimized by state violence.
Instead of looking for more reasons to define more people as terrorists, all Americans should be working together to restore due process rights. This division among the American people might have been exactly what bin Laden wanted in attacking the U.S. in the first place.