Citizenship Exploited: Lessons from the Oregon Occupation

For 41 days, the Oregon occupiers laid claim to and established temporary residence in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) - a federal facility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of them now have a new temporary residence - federal jails.

The occupiers have been indicted and will be tried for their actions. Those trials will determine their innocence or guilt and whether the temporary residences will become permanent.

The courts and juries will make those legal decisions. The decision on whether the occupiers' actions were consistent with good citizenship, however, will be made in the court of public opinion.

There is absolutely only one way that court can decide. They were not.

The occupiers exploited their citizenship and took total advantage of the rights granted to them by the U.S. Constitution. They are the enemy within.

And, in many ways they are far more dangerous than the enemy without. They threaten the currently fragile fabric of our democratic republic.

At the time they invaded the Refuge on January 2, the occupiers asserted that they did so to secure immediate freedom for local area ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven who were to go back to federal prison on January 4 to serve out the rest of five years sentences for fires they set to burn federal land. (The Hammonds returned to prison.)

The occupiers also asserted that the Constitution limits the federal ownership of land. (Most legal scholars agree this is absolutely incorrect.) They also indicated they were exercising their rights under the Constitution.

The First and Second Amendments to the Constitution do guarantee freedom of speech and the right to bear arms to U.S. citizens. Those rights do not come without constraints, however.

Along with them, come responsibilities. Those responsibilities are part of the social contract that enables us to live together in an organized society within a system of rules and laws.

The responsibilities of a good citizen include:

  • Understanding history and civics
  • Demanding due process
  • Obeying the law
  • Protesting in a peaceful manner
  • Respecting the rights of others

The occupiers fulfilled none of these responsibilities. They failed miserably on most of them.

  • Understanding of history and civics. One of the early statements of the occupiers was that they wanted the property at Malheur returned to the ranchers who once owned the lands. The fact is that the original owners of the land in Harney County where the Refuge is located were the Paiute Indians. The federal government acquired some of this land through treaty and federal ownership of the land dates back to territorial times with the vast bulk of the acres having never been sold to others - ranchers or otherwise.
  • Demanding due process. The occupiers made no formal or legal request to revoke the government's status and position in the Refuge. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says to the federal government that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law." If the occupiers felt that the federal government had acted outside the law in establishing and creating the Refuge, the Constitution provided them with the opportunity for legal recourse.
  • Obeying the law. There is no question that by seizing the Refuge the occupiers ignored the law. According to the Judicial Learning Center, "Obeying the law is not only beneficial to society as a whole, but it allows individuals to reap the protections of living in an orderly environment." By taking the law into their own hands, the occupiers created a state of tremendous disorder.
  • Protesting in a peaceful manner. The occupiers declared that they wanted to be peaceful protesters but were armed and threatened violence if they were confronted and their demands were not met. The First Amendment to the constitution protects the "rights of people to peacefully assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." No reasonable person could construe the gathering of the occupiers at the Refuge as peaceful either in purpose or process.
  • Respecting the rights of others. The occupiers not only took over the Refuge they captured the county of Harney and divided citizens in the town of Burns, its major city. As one citizen put it, "This county is so tore up, it will never be the same - ever." No local asked or invited the occupiers to come to that patch of earth or to intervene there in any way. By taking this action unilaterally, the occupiers elevated their own rights and agenda and broke faith with the citizens of Harney County.

We have referred to those individuals who came to the Refuge as occupiers because of what they did. Others have referred to them as domestic terrorists and citizen activists.

Among other things, one of the words the occupiers chose to characterize themselves was as "patriots."

We are not certain what label or epithet might be appropriate for them. We know for certain, however, that patriot is not the correct term.

That's because patriots put their country first and concern for the common good second. The occupiers did and do neither.

Their actions were those of self-interest rather than national interest. Their appeal was to our lesser rather than our better angels. Their flying of the American flag at the Refuge which they had taken hostage desecrated rather than honored it.

As we conclude, maybe there is a term that applies to the occupiers. That is "expatriates."

That might sound a bit strange because the definition of expatriates are persons "who live outside their native country." The occupiers reside in the United States.

But, the space in which they actually live is the one between their ears. That is the country to which they owe their allegiance and citizenship.

The "expatriates" have exploited their rights as United States citizens by creating the maelstrom in Malheur. They should and must be held accountable in all of the appropriate forums and venues for that act of disloyalty to their fellow Americans.