The Oregon Standoff Spotlights the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the US


Recent jihadist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California have refocused the political debate on the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism, but the armed takeover of a federal facility at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, spotlights the persistence of a less-discussed — but no less deadly — threat: the upsurge of homegrown right-wing extremism.

The standoff: Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, militiamen stormed the federal facility on Saturday night to protest the impending imprisonment of father-and-son ranchers Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, who were convicted of arson in 2012 after lighting fires on federal lands, ostensibly to protect crops. The New York Times reported that Dwight Hammond served three months in prison, while Steven Hammond served a year, but a federal judge ruled that their sentences had been insufficiently tough under a 1996 anti-terrorism law.

The Bundy-led militiamen will occupy the federal building "for as long as it takes," occupier Ryan Payne, an Army veteran of the Iraq War, told the Times. The Oregonian reported that about 20 militiamen are holed up inside the building, while hundreds of supporters have flocked to the area to back the occupiers.

The Hammonds do not support the occupiers, their lawyer has stated.

The context: The occupation of the Oregon facility comes amid "a surge in right-wing extremism that began in 2009," Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, told Mic

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Such extremism, Pitcavage said, manifests itself in two forms: white supremacist movements and anti-government activism. He identified three factors behind the uptick in far-right activity: the cyclical ebb-and-flow of extremist movements, the popular discontent sparked by the Great Recession and the housing crisis and the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

"White supremacists hate Obama for an obvious reason," Pitcavage told Mic, alluding to the president's biracial heritage. "But anti-government extremists were also very mobilized by the election of Obama because they quickly incorporated him into their anti-government conspiracy theories. They quickly became convinced that Obama was going to confiscate their guns and declare martial law. They basically revived all their conspiracy theories from the 1990s and put Obama at the center of them."

Heidi Beirich, the head of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, echoed that analysis, arguing that visceral anti-Obama sentiment stoked extremist activity.

"The rabid anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy-mongering has made these people think that they're the mainstream," Beirich told Mic.

But the post-2009 surge in right-wing extremism, Pitcavage said, affected the white supremacist and anti-government movements in divergent ways.

"White supremacists became very angry, and we saw an increase in violent activity," he said, "but they didn't really increase their numbers." By contrast, anti-government activists "brought more people into the movement."

According to data from the SPLC, the number of far-right anti-government groups skyrocketed from 149 in 2008 to a peak of 1,360 in 2012, the final year of Obama's first term. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, the number of such groups declined to 874. But that's still higher than the Bill Clinton-era peak of 858, reached in 1996, the year after extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168. 

The Hammonds' case has become a rallying cry for a hodgepodge of anti-government extremists, who have depicted it as federal tyranny run amok. Jon Ritzheimer, a militiaman and anti-government activist occupying the Oregon facility, has said that the occupation is part of his duty to "defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic," the Daily Beast reported, echoing fellow occupier LaVoy Finicum, who told the site that the Hammond case was an "unconscionable" affront to the Constitution.

Similar rhetoric surrounded the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch. In April of that year, Bundy led an armed standoff against agents with the federal Bureau of Land Management, with which Bundy had been embroiled in a two-decades-long battle over his grazing cattle on public lands without a permit. The BLM sought $1 million in unpaid taxes Bundy owed for his cattle-grazing, but federal officials ultimately stood down in the dispute amid threats of a violent uprising by Bundy supporters.

Rebecca Boone/AP

"What's happening in Oregon in 2016 is a direct consequence of what happened in Nevada in 2014," Pitcavage said, arguing that the Nevada victory emboldened anti-government extremists in search of more alleged victims of federal overreach. 

That's not to say the Oregon insurrectionists have won universal support on the far right. The head of the Oath Keepers, a group that organized supporters at the Bundy ranch, said that the Oregon standoff was "manufactured by potheads who want a fight," while the Three Percenters group said that it does not "condone [or] support these actions."

A lethal threat: Thus far, the Oregon occupiers have avoided acts of violence, although the New York Times notes that Ammon Bundy has expressed openness to violence if law enforcement attempts to remove the occupiers.

The v-word isn't far from the minds of extremism experts. According to data compiled by the centrist New America Foundation, far-right extremists have killed 48 people in terror attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, compared with 45 people killed in attacks perpetrated by Islamic jihadists.

Despite such statistics, the right-wing extremist threat has yet to penetrate the political dialogue the way the jihadist menace has. At the most recent Republican presidential debate, held last month in Las Vegas, candidates spent the bulk of the evening sparring over how to combat the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, but uttered not a single word about the equally lethal threat stemming from anti-government fanaticism.

Discussing far-right militancy has long been taboo in many political circles. In 2009, a conservative pressure campaign forced the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw a report on the upsurge in right-wing extremist activity, just as the number of far-right anti-government groups neared its modern peak.

Nearly seven years later, the Anti-Defamation League's Pitcavage said it's of paramount importance that federal officials avoid further inflaming extremist sentiment in Oregon.

"The most important thing," he told Mic, "is that the federal government not do anything to turn these guys into martyrs."