Learn and move on from ghastly standoff verdicts

Late last year, an armed anti-government militia began gathering in Burns to protest sanctions against ranchers been treating federal grazing land as their own. On Jan. 2, militants seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and turned it into an armed camp.

The ensuing 41-day occupation cost taxpayers $3.3 million to $10 million, depending on what you count. The intruders turned an Indian burial site into a latrine, broke into office safes, rifled files, ripped out a surveillance system, appropriated computers, vehicles and equipment, posted signs and armed guards to block access and announced seizure of title based on their own fanciful theories.

They left behind rivers of sewage and mountains of trash. One of their number even had the gall to seize a government truck for a grocery run. Nonetheless, the seven-member core group got off scot free.

How could justice possibly be subverted to such an astounding extent? After all, even the truck thief was exonerated.

In our analysis, you can chalk it up mainly to mishandling of both the crisis itself and the legal aftermath, compounded by the class, race and religion of the perpetrators and the extent to which pervasive anti-government rhetoric has poisoned rational thinking.

Tensions in town were reaching such a fever pitch over the new year that management dismissed workers early on Dec. 31 and told them not to report back until they got word it was safe. That served as an open invitation for emboldened radicals.

Wary of fostering another bloodbath like Ruby Ridge or Waco, the feds decided to avoid immediate confrontation. However, in addition to rejecting armed intervention, they also opted to eliminate cutoff of water, sewer, power, mail and internet service, issuance of formal land closure and trespassing notices, and curtailment of free ingress and egress for militants, sympathizers, suppliers and publicity seekers.

At trial, that proved immensely helpful to militia leaders trying to portray themselves as peaceful protesters in the mold of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. After all, they were virtually invited to move in, stick around and take over.

Federal prosecutors also made a fatal miscalculation in tying virtually their case to arcane federal racketeering statutes. To find the loosely organized core seven guilty of lesser changes, the jury first had to find them guilty of consciously conspiring to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs — and it couldn’t.

A closure order would have set the stage for a criminal trespass case. Charges could also have been brought for theft, vandalism, criminal mischief and weapons violations. But that would have dictated state prosecution in state courts, cutting the feds out, and brought lesser penalties.

Then there are the class, race and religion elements. If the refuge had been seized by armed black, Muslim or Latino street radicals, rather than white Christian ranchers from Western badlands, the reaction of police, prosecutors and jurors would no doubt have been radically different.

Let’s hope lessons were learned. It’s the best we’re going to achieve at this juncture.