As luck or fate or random chance would have it, as the news about the Trump debate drama and the arrests of the Bundy-ites broke last night, I was out for a celebratory dinner with our New York City editorial staff to gear up for the many late nights of the primary season proper. So the DC team carried the ball and we here in New York tried to follow the sketchy developments as they emerged from Oregon on our iPhones. By the time I got home, we knew that one militant was dead and, a bit later, that it was Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the most high profile of the militants and the one who’d openly said he’d prefer to die rather than be taken alive. Here’s a look at who Finicum was.
The whole Oregon drama perplexed me as to how it would end because there was such a ‘virtual’, seemingly farcical way it was being handled. If you can leave the ‘stand off’ to head over to the local minimart in town to stock up on snacks and head back unfettered the whole notion becomes … well, a bit notional. What seemed to be the case and what now seems clear was that the FBI strategy was twofold: first, give the militants enough slack on the line to let them make mockeries of themselves and second and more importantly, to lull them into an almost comical sense of invulnerability where they set themselves up for this arrest of all the top leaders on a road in the middle of nowhere, with what seems like near total surprise.
To get a full sense of what was happening, basically all the main leaders got in their cars and were on a 100 mile trek – all publicized in advance, when and where they were going – to go talk to sympathizers in another county. The roads they had to travel seem to have had plenty of blind turns and forested areas where the FBI could spring on them pretty much totally unawares.
When I heard that Finicum had died my own feeling was some mix of sadness and disgust – not because I sympathized with Finicum, he clearly seemed to want to end his life like this, but because of how sad and stupid it is to throw away your life over bullshit. He had a wife and eleven kids. No doubt they’re devastated. Even with the rankest violent white supremacists or jihadis who blow themselves up or get themselves killed, I can get that there’s a thing they’re doing, a set of beliefs, albeit crazy and totally evil. Here, though, these guys have this bucket of nonsense hocum about Magna Carta and Sheriffs somehow being the true “sovereigns” over state governments, federal governments, the people themselves and all of this means the federal government can’t manage and charge grazing fees for land that it in fact owns. These aren’t archaic ideas that were once true but are now outdated. This stuff was never true or even made any sense. Clearly, there’s a sense of alienation and entitlement and a cultural posture driving these beliefs but I’m sorry, that’s just a complete f’ing pile of nonsense that isn’t based on anything. Like I said, it’s sad to see someone throw their life away over bullshit. Not because Finicum matters to me but because senseless bloodshed is sad and stupid and with any life ultimately tragic.
The thing that struck me most about last night however was something very specific: social media allowed one to watch the mythology of Finicum’s martyrdom emerge and congeal in real time. I never participate on Twitter anymore, not since last Spring. But I went on just to watch the stream. And within two hours you went from Bundy’s third hand claim that Finicum was shot in cold blood while trying to surrender to this being heard, accepted, validated and become gospel for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of members of the digital hard right. I cannot help but note that I spent a good deal of time checking the bios of the people who were embracing this hardest. At least half explicitly identifying themselves as Ted Cruz supporters in their Twitter bios.
Now, we can’t know with certainty yet what happened in that confrontation or how Finicum died. There are conflicting accounts from members of the traveling entourage about exactly what happened. But the wildly, seemingly lackadaisical posture the FBI took through the confrontation makes it quite clear that federal authorities – whoever was calling the shots – really, really wanted to avoid creating martyrs who will draw other crazies and lone wolfs out of the shadows for the next round of ‘patriot’ violence. That’s the concern that’s been controlling federal law enforcement actions since the beginning of the stand off. But all that said, just listen to Finicum himself! Supporters now insist that he was blamelessly surrendering when he was killed in cold blood even though he gave interviews stating clearly that he would die rather than be taken alive.
Clearly, in any kind of crazy fringe you have people who will absolutely positively believe things regardless of any evidence that emerges. But I’ve always been perplexed and intrigued by this kind of cognitive dissonance. It’s sort of like Holocaust deniers who insist the Holocaust didn’t happen even as they also say it would be awesome if it had. I know many of our readers were a mix of scratching their heads and getting increasingly frustrated that these yahoos were allowed to openly flaunt their law breaking, take over federal property, menace civilians and law enforcement all with near total impunity. As I said at the outset of this story (and it’s not over), in the context of the on-going dialog about race, police use of force and violence and all the ways these wrenching issues interweave with each other, this whole ridiculous episode amounted to a sort of white privilege performance art. As this farcical incident from one day earlier demonstrated, sometimes you’ve got to really work at it as a middle-aged white guy in camo to get shot by a cop. And even then you can come up empty.
But from what we can tell, the strategy of de-escalation came pretty close to working and in a lot of ways did work. They waited them out and pounced at what was probably an ideal moment in terms of having all the ringleaders in one place, isolated, not at their compound and caught by surprise. It frankly sucks that they weren’t quite able to pull it off. Determined effort to commit suicide by cop is hard to prevent. Now these cartoonish entitlement clowns have their martyr. And if past is prologue there’s someone out there now, ginned up into outrage over the ‘murder’ of Finicum, planning his own mass shooting or bombing or other rage spectacle.