President Barack Obama–or at least Neil Kornze, the director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM)–has some serious lessons to learn about the uses of power.
For more than 20 years, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, has refused to pay fees for grazing cattle on public lands, some 80 miles north of Las Vegas.
BLM says Bundy now owes close to $1 million. He says his family has used the land since the 1870s and doesn’t recognize the federal government’s jurisdiction.
In 2013, a federal judge ordered Bundy to remove his livestock. He ignored the order, and in early April, 2014, BLM agents rounded up more than 400 of his cattle.
Over the weekend of April 12-13, armed militia members and states’ right protesters showed up to challenge the move.
Rather than risk violence, the BLM did an about-face and released the cattle.
Right-wing bloggers and commentators have portrayed the incident as a victory over Federal tyranny.
According to Alex Jones’ Infowars.com: “Historic! Feds Forced to Surrender to American Citizens.”
Right-wingers have depicted Bundy as a put-upon Everyman being “squeeaed” by the dictatorial Federal government.
They have deliberately ignored a number of inconvenient truths–such as:
- He claims that his grazing rights were established in 1880 when his ancestors settled the land where his ranch sits.
- But the Nevada constitution–adopted in 1864 as a condition of statehood–contradicts Bundy’s right to operate as a law unto himself.
- The constitution says: “The people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”
- In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act gave existing ranchers permits allowing them to run their herds on federal land.
- In turn, ranchers paid user fees, which were lower than what most private landowners would have charged.
- In 1993, the Federal government launched an effort to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
- Certain grasslands were placed off-limits for grazing, and the government bought out the permits of some ranchers.
- Among others, Bundy refused to sell and kept grazing his cattle on restricted federal land without a permit.
- Amidst mounting fees and fines, Bundy repeatedly slugged it out in court against government lawyers. He lost.
- In 1998, a federal judge permanently barred him from letting his cattle graze on protected federal land.
- In early April, 2014, BLM agents–charged with overseeing grazing rights–began rounding up Bundy’s cattle to remove them from federal property.
Bundy’s family and other ranchers–backed up by a motley assortment of self-declared militiamen armed with rifles and pistols–confronted the agents.
Fearing another Waco–regarded by Right-wing Americans as a second Alamo–the BLM agents backed down and released Bundy’s cattle. And then retreated.
While Right-wingers hail this as a victory for “states’ rights,” the truth is considerably different.
Bundy’s refusal to recognize the federal government’s jurisdiction amounts to: “I will recognize–and obey–only those laws that I happen to agree with.”
And the BLM’s performance offers a texbook lesson on how not to promote respect for the law–or for those who enforce it.
As Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of modern political science warned more than 500 years ago in The Prince:
[A ruler] is rendered despicable by being thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid and irresolute—which [he] must guard against as a rock of danger….
[He] must contrive that his actions show grandeur, spirit, gravity and fortitude.
As to the government of his subjects, let his sentence be irrevocable, and let him adhere to his decisions so that no one may think of deceiving or cozening him.
In his master-work, The Discouorses, he outlines the consequences of allowing lawbreakers to go unpunished:
…Having established rewards for good actions and penalties for evil ones, and having rewarded a citizen for conduct who afterwards commits a wrong, he should be chastised for that without regard to his previous merits….
For if a citizen who has rendered some eminent service to the state should add to the reputation and influence which he has thereby acquired the confident audacity of being able to commit any wrong without fear of punishment, he will in a little while become so insolent and overbearing as to put an end to all power of the law.
The conduct of the agents of BLM has violated that sage counsel on all counts.
BLM agents should have expected trouble from Right-wing militia groups–and come fully prepared to deal with it.
The FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, for example, have created SWAT teams to deal with those who threaten violence against the Federal Government.
Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman had a formula for dealing with domestic terrorists of his own time.
Writing to his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, about the best way to treat Confederate guerrillas, he advised:
General Willilam Tecumseh Sherman
“They cannot be made to love us, but they may be made to fear us. We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South.
“But we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that . . . they are still mortal and should exhaust all peaceful remedies before they fly to war.”