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Lessons from Ruby Ridge



Twenty years ago today, an FBI sniper shot Vicki Weaver in the head as she held her ten-month-old baby at her home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The sniper also shot her husband Randy Weaver in the back, trying to kill him. Their son was shot in the back and killed the day before by U.S. Marshals on the family’s property. One of the Marshals also died, as did a Weaver family dog killed by the officials.

This all started after years of federal investigation into Randy Weaver, beginning in the mid-1980s when Weaver’s neighbor, bitter over a land dispute, called him to the attention of various federal authorities. The most that came from these investigations was a charge, possibly true but contested, that Weaver had sold illegally sawed-off shotguns to an ATF informant, a charge with which an agent threatened Weaver if he refused to participate in another one of their investigations into third parties. Not wanting to be an ATF informant, Weaver refused. Eventually, a trial was set, but Weaver was told the wrong court date. A grand jury indicted him for failure to appear before he had a chance to show up on the date he was told.

The federal agents ambushed his property and when all was done, one official and two of the Weaver group had died and two were wounded, along with the loss of their family pet.

Some look at this incident as a sign of the modern dangers of anti-government paranoia, but this is an obscene interpretation of the facts. If anything, this is an example of the government’s paranoia run amok.

Consider:

1. This began when the federal government levied a charge of selling unlawful weapons—shotguns that had been sawed off. The fact that this kind of offense against the state would ever lead to federal agents snooping around on private property should demonstrate the real problem. In a free society, selling shotguns would never be a federal offense—even if they were modified. People have a right to bear arms. And this atrocity only showcases the types of evils that can result when the government cracks down on this human right.

2. Even if there is something wrong with selling modified shot guns, this crime would never have occurred had the federal informant not bought them! What kind of crime is it that the government encourages people to commit? Murder, rape, and robbery are real crimes, and rarely do we consider it appropriate for federal officials to encourage people to commit these acts only to nab them after the fact. If transferring shotguns is to be punished, the federal agents involved in the transaction are as guilty as anyone.

3. The government’s supposed moderation and reasonableness, compared to the alleged nuttiness of fringe anti-government types, seem doubtful given the way the feds handled this from beginning to end. Aside from the many follies leading up to the 22nd of August, the feds shot as their targets were running away posing no immediate threat to anyone. A Justice Department review found the sniper’s actions reckless and the feds’ failure to offer surrender before his shootings “inexcusable.”

And to top it all off, what happened with the FBI sniper who shot Vicki Weaver in the head as she stood holding her baby? Was he fired or at least rerouted to a different line of work? No. He was brought in to serve as the sniper at the Waco, Texas, standoff in April 1993. This brazen approach to law enforcement would appear to vindicate the paranoid views of government, rather than the hysterical view that anti-government loons are posing a threat to the country.

4. This atrocity occurred under George H.W. Bush. This is often forgotten by conservatives who see Ruby Ridge and Waco as two black marks against Clintonian rule. But Clinton would not even be elected for more than two months after the killings. On the other hand, left-liberals often forget that this was not some case of the reasonable liberal Democrat’s government defending society against rightwing crazies. If you think there’s anything wrong with the police state built by President Bush after 9/11, you should also keep in mind the federal horrors unleashed by his father.

What this last point really shows, however, is the bipartisan nature of out-of-control federal law enforcement. Ruby Ridge occurred under Bush I but the Clinton government conducted the whitewash. The planning for the Waco raid began under Bush I but was undertaken by Clinton and ultimately whitewashed by a Republican Congress. Ruby Ridge and all that has followed it—Waco, Clinton’s expansion of the drug war, Bush II’s abuses of human rights in the war on terror, Obama’s solidification and expansion of these authoritarian powers crafted by his predecessors—demonstrate that the issue is not the left vs. right, but the militarized central state vs. individual life and liberty.

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