Why are the Oregon ‘militiamen’ not being branded as domestic terrorists?

By Gordon Wilson


On Saturday the 2nd, approximately 150 men, some wielding semi-automatic weaponry, seized control of a federal building near Burns, Oregon. Following the alarming number of terrorist attacks in 2015, the instinctual reaction would be to brand this occupation in the same manner. However, the media has widely labelled the men ‘militia’, a somewhat evasive term, instead of using the negative term ‘terrorist’.

So, are these men terrorists? According to the FBI’s definition, yes. The first clause of the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism states that it involves “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” – while nobody has been harmed by the ‘militiamen’, using weaponry to seize a federal building certainly violates the law. According to The Oregonian’s Ian Kullgren, ‘militiaman’ Ryan Bundy said, “they’re willing to kill and be killed if necessary.” Violence is not yet out of the question.

The second vital clause of the FBI definition is that acts of domestic terrorism “Appear intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Again, this fits the scenario perfectly, as the Bundy family are fighting against what they see as an unfair law.

The final clause states that domestic terrorism occurs “primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”

So, if the occupation fits the term ‘domestic terrorism’ perfectly, why are the White House and the mainstream media avoiding the term?

It’s a complex issue. Ex-Department of Homeland Security employee Daryl Johnson, an expert on right-wing militants, has stated that he does not view the Burns ‘militiamen’ as terrorists, due to the lack of violence so far. It could be argued, however, that Ryan Bundy’s threat of violence would be enough to fulfil the FBI definition of domestic terrorism.

So perhaps the reason the media is avoiding use of the term is that “terrorist” is an extremely evocative term. It immediately makes people emotional and hateful. This would be counter-intuitive to the government’s current strategy, as federal authorities have been explicitly ordered to avoid a violent confrontation.5 Stirring up emotion would not assist a peaceful resolution.

Despite this, it’s hard to overlook a certain race/religion bias here. If the occupiers of the federal building were Muslim men with semi-automatic weapons, it’s easy to imagine that the public would be terrified, and law enforcement would react with extreme force. Is this simply a symptom of the culture then, where prejudice is so heavy that the media are unwilling to view white men as domestic terrorists? Twitter users have pointed out the hypocrisy using the hashtag #y’allqaeda, with some hilarious, though, thought-provoking results.

While the police response to the situation in Oregon seems perfectly appropriate due to the lack of violence so far, it is important to remember the case of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old African-American child who was shot dead in Cleveland for possessing a toy gun. It is reported that the officer who fired the shots, Timothy Loehmann, did so within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Loehmann has since avoided criminal charges.6 If Loehmann had taken more than two seconds to analyse the situation, he might have realised that Rice was not a threat.

It is important that a society perceived as civilized considers these questions. Why are white ‘domestic terrorists’ with semi-automatic weapons being offered a peaceful resolution that was not offered to a twelve year old African-American child? Would this non-violent option be offered to those of Middle-Eastern descent? It feels like there is a double standard in play.

Another important question: what defines a terrorist in the eyes of the public, government and law enforcement agencies? Is race and religion more of a defining factor than motives or ideology? Is appearance more important than intentions?

It will be interesting to see the approach taken by the federal government with regards to resolving the occupation of federal property and whether a peaceful resolution will be achieved.


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