For 41 days earlier this year, Ammon Bundy and a group of armed ranchers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The occupiers, who brandished weapons and threatened federal officers, also made it clear that they didn’t recognize the government’s authority to own or even manage public land. They recognize no law above themselves.
When the occupiers were finally arrested Jan. 26 on a road in the refuge, not all of them surrendered peacefully. One of their members, Robert LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by an officer who thought he was reaching for a gun. Finicum actually believed the violent rhetoric that his cohorts gave lip service to when they weren’t surrounded and outgunned and paid for it with his life. He died while his friends turned themselves in without a fight.
Now that the trial of Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others has begun, their excuses for armed defiance of the government sound even hollower. In opening arguments last week, a defense lawyer insisted that Bundy never threatened anyone and that the charge of conspiracy to impede federal officers through threat and intimidation was unjust. If this is the best defense the occupiers can muster, then things will not go well for the hapless rebels as they try to explain how the guns and ammo they openly displayed and pointed in their direction weren’t intended to intimidate.
Still, it is to the credit of the American justice system that the occupiers, who claim to be beyond the government’s jurisdiction, are entitled to a vigorous defense. Their arguments, no matter how absurd, will be heard. Because we live under a system of laws and not posses operating in the Wild West, judgment will be rendered accordingly.