Why do armed bullies think they can take over a federal facility and get away with it?
Because they have, at least so far.
Armed intruders remain in control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an “oasis of wetlands” near Burns, Ore., after occupying it on Saturday. Until a few days ago it was better known as home to greater sandhill cranes. Now the oasis is the focal point of a stand-off instigated by folks who apparently think it is okay to shut down a taxpayer-owned wilderness area for their own purposes, denying it to law-abiding people and causing federal employees to be shut out of their workplaces in the process.
Not only are refuge employees prevented from going to work, but so are workers in nearby federal facilities whose workplaces were closed as a precaution. More than 60 staffers of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which includes Malheur, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service cannot get to their offices.
“It’s stressful,” said Randy Eardley, a bureau spokesperson. “Everyone would prefer to be doing their jobs.”
This episode is another reminder of the dangers that come with federal service. The Office of Personnel Management said four employees died in the line of service during the first five months of fiscal year 2016. But that did not include seven federal-employee firefighters and two federal-contractor firefighters who also died that year.
In August, four employees at the Canaan federal penitentiary in Waymart, Pa., were assaulted as a prisoner tried to stab a food service worker in the neck. The others went to his aid. A correctional officer was murdered by an inmate at that same facility in 2013.
Prisons are inherently dangerous places. Wildlife reserves are not. Or at least they shouldn’t be. But when a gun-toting, anti-government gang takes over a wilderness federal facility, it shows no place is safe. Fortunately, no one in Malheur has been hurt.
“Right now, our number one concern is the safety of our members who work on the nearby Malheur National Forest,” said Drew Halunen, a spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Employees. “The unlawful occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is preventing hard-working federal employees from carrying out the everyday business of the American people.”
Meanwhile, the unlawful occupation continues, a circumstance that would be hard to imagine if the occupiers were black or Muslim instead of white, as my colleague Eugene Robinson and others have noted.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) pointed out what is clear to everyone but the occupiers. “The illegal takeover of any federal property is a criminal act and all those involved should be arrested and federally prosecuted,” the association said. “Any individual or group who seeks to harass, intimidate or interfere with any federal agency’s lawful mission should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of federal law.”
Curiously, White House spokesman Josh Earnest seemed not to fully recognize the federal law enforcement responsibility when asked about the siege earlier this week. “This ultimately is a local law enforcement matter,” he said Monday.
Jon Adler, president of FLEOA’s foundation, said Earnest is mistaken.
“We are entrusted with protection of federal buildings,” he added. “It is primarily our responsibility.”
Adler is concerned that Earnest’s statement could lead federal law enforcement officers at the scene to feel they do not have the support of the government if force is required to evict the interlopers. He cited the “painful stains” of violent and controversial confrontations with federal officers at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Tex., in 1993. That concern about government support is fed even more by Republicans in Congress who have shown “sympathy for seditionists,” as Dana Milbank reported in his Washington Post column.
Talk like that “along with the severe anti- government rhetoric we have seen from some over the last several years certainly doesn’t give federal workers the comfort of knowing that their work is appreciated, and their safety in the workplace is guaranteed…” said Matthew Biggs, a spokesperson for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. “It also can’t be ignored that the organizers of this occupation could have been emboldened by this irrational attitude toward the government.”