Not rebels, but insurgents

 

The closest I ever came to understanding genuine terror was in Sri Lanka, in 2007. For five weeks, I’d been reporting on the insurgency of the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group fighting the Buddhist majority government. The insurgency had grown increasingly violent over the years, and bombings around the country had intensified. When my work in the capital, Colombo, was done, I jumped on a crowded bus and left town, ready for a few days of decompression at a beach on the other side of the island.

That afternoon, on the last leg of the trip, two young, nervous-looking men suddenly pushed their way through the passengers and sprang off the bus, sprinting away as hard as they could. Bomb, I thought, and I was not alone. Instantly, the passengers stampeded for the exits at either end of the bus. I was stuck in the middle, and as terrified men, women and children tumbled off the bus, one after another, I caught myself praying: “Not like this. Please, not like this.”

HCN managing editor Brian Calvert.

I escaped the bus, and in a matter of minutes learned there was never a bomb, merely two mischievous boys running for home, oblivious to us passengers, who now stood aghast in the middle of the road. “I think it was a joke,” one man whispered to me. Later, as I covered similar conflicts in southern Thailand and Afghanistan, I often thought of that bus and the nonexistent bomb. In the events that have unfolded in the past days, including the shooting death of a militiaman in Oregon, I’ve started thinking about them again. That’s because High Country News has been digging into the connections between people like those who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and a broader network of malcontents bent on delegitimizing the federal government.

This magazine has followed the Sagebrush Rebellion for decades, but during the last two years, our journalists have focused on something more insidious, an inchoate movement of militants, law enforcement officers, state politicians, county commissioners and other supporters that I believe is more dangerous than it first appears. The Malheur occupation is only part of it. The State Department defines an insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” That’s starting to happen right here in the West.

These would-be guerrillas are different from other insurgents in degree, not kind. They are not interested in the rule of law, nor the principles of democracy. They are zealots, blind to all but their version of the truth, stumbling toward some unseen flashpoint. We’ve dedicated much of the current issue to understanding this movement, one that is largely unknown to the public and perhaps partially obscure even to itself. The problem is not going anywhere, and, though I wish it were, it’s certainly not a joke.