For the sake of argument, The Scrapbook is willing to concede that it is possible that Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher, ought to be allowed to graze his cattle on federal land in Nye County. And that protecting the desert tortoise as an endangered species on that same federal land is no good reason to impose a fee for grazing livestock. Reasonable people can disagree about these issues, and will do so.
But in the United States of America, since 1789, we have had ways of settling these disputes. We have a judicial system that gives citizens due process and the right to seek redress for grievances. We have a political system that encourages citizens to elect people to public office who will pass laws we like, or rescind laws we don’t like, and uphold the laws they have enacted. We also have a Bill of Rights in our Constitution, the very first item of which protects the freedom of speech, allowing supporters and critics of laws to influence public opinion and government. All of these remedies have been, and remain, available to Cliven Bundy.
Twenty years ago, the federal government, which owns the land on which Bundy grazes his 900 cattle, decided to impose a grazing fee. Bundy opposes that fee, has consistently refused to pay it, and the federal Bureau of Land Management now claims that he owes $1 million in unpaid fees. Bundy has challenged the grazing fee in federal court—indeed, has challenged the federal government’s title to land in Nevada—and has consistently lost. Sixteen years ago, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Bundy, ordering the removal of his cattle. Bundy appealed that ruling to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and lost again. Last August, a federal court gave Bundy 45 days to remove his cattle, and in October, a federal district judge ordered Bundy not to “physically interfere with any seizure or impoundment operation.”
This does not sound to The Scrapbook like the dread hand of tyranny, in Nevada or Washington, oppressing an innocent farmer, or pushing some law-abiding citizen around. It sounds, instead, like a rancher gaming the system to his own financial advantage, and disguising his scheme in populist rhetoric: refusing to pay a tax which others must pay, and “tying up the courts”—for two decades!—as he continues to ignore the law. Far from acting in an arbitrary or capricious manner, the federal government has shown patience and forbearance in the face of lawlessness that customarily lands people in jail. It is worth noting that Bundy’s rancher-neighbors and the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, who contend with the same federal policies, offer him little support.
Bundy has exercised his First Amendment right to plead his case publicly and inflame his admirers. And inflamed they have been: A few hundred people from around the country converged on Nye County, Nevada—many armed and brandishing weapons—to disrupt the government’s attempt to enforce the law, taunting and attacking agents dutifully carrying out the orders of a federal court. Last week, fearful of violence, the BLM suspended its roundup and withdrew from the area.
This is no victory for anyone other than Bundy and, The Scrapbook hopes, a temporary one at that. There is a term to describe the people who surround him, and it isn’t “militia.” The word is “mob.” And what this mob has practiced is not civil disobedience but armed provocation of a democratic government which has afforded Cliven Bundy every right and privilege as a citizen. One of Bundy’s supporters boasted to the press that “we were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front.” This is the same spirit that animates people who attack firemen during riots, or opposed school integration with violence in Little Rock, Arkansas. In that case, 57 years ago, President Eisenhower was obliged to send the 101st Airborne because, as he said, “mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.”
What was true then remains true today. Cliven Bundy is no hero of any kind. No conservative would pick and choose the laws he intends to obey, defy the rest, and challenge the rule of democracy with guns. No hero would adopt the terrorist’s tactic of placing innocents in harm’s way. Any fool can pick up a weapon and aim at an officer of the law; the moral power of civil disobedience lies in the willingness to defer to the law and accept punishment on principle.