Snapshot of a sad moment


When a band of militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this winter, we at High Country News worked hard to understand not only what was happening day by day, but also why it was happening. What did Ammon Bundy and his supporters actually want? We’re still trying to figure it out.

Certainly, the occupation meant something. And while it’s easy to cast the Bundyites as foolish malcontents, as many in the media have done, there’s more to it than that. The Malheur occupation generated so much interest, I think, because it strikes at core questions at work in the American West today — questions about liberty and power and control.

Over the last eight years, since the election of President Barack Obama, the extreme right has steadily sown discord throughout our democracy. This has created paralysis in the federal government, mistrust among the electorate and a general erosion of civility. In many ways, the Malheur occupation is a product of this campaign, which has also encouraged the rise of Donald Trump. Both the occupation and Trump’s candidacy rely on the anxieties of middle- and lower-class white Americans, and I’ve found it hard lately to think of one without the other.

A recent analysis by the Washington Post shows that in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Vermont, Trump won proportionately more votes in the places where the death rate of middle-aged whites was higher than average. The rural West shares many of those states’ characteristics, but there is one distinction: Life in the West is, in large part, an experiment in cooperation. Out here, we have learned to work together to make use of our resources, including our public lands, through a democratic, bureaucratic process that is as messy as it is necessary. That cooperation was lost on the occupiers.

Managing editor Brian Calvert

Still, I don’t think ridiculing them will help. We should seek to understand them, as Montana writer Hal Herring does in this issue’s cover essay. Both sympathetic and skeptical, Herring embedded himself in the occupation and had lengthy discussions with the people who found themselves, imperiled and at times bewildered, under Bundy’s banner. Herring’s sharp eye and honest writing provide an indelible snapshot of a sad moment in Western history.

The occupation is over, with 25 men and women arrested, one man killed, and Bundy and his inner circle facing felony charges. But this won’t be the end of the story, I suspect. We are left now to learn from it what we can. A good place to start is Herring’s essay, which comes as close as anything I’ve read to an insider’s view of the occupation — the latest sign of our troubled times.

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