20 Years Later: Why Ruby Ridge Still Matters

| by Reason Foundation

Twenty years since the Ruby Ridge siege, the event is usually remembered as a major motivator to the militia movement and the anti-government fervor of the '90s. It was cited, together with the following year's bloody fiasco in Waco, Texas, as an outrage to be avenged, by Timothy McVeigh.

And, sure enough, the Associated Press story on the legacy of Ruby Ridge specifies that the incident "helped spark an anti-government patriot movement that grew to include the Oklahoma City bombing."

But if the siege and killings in Idaho helped make many Americans fear the government, a strong case can be made that it also pushed the federal government to fear many of the people over whom it rules.

Let's not forget that the stand-off at Ruby Ridge began with nothing more than Randy Weaver's failure to appear on a charge of selling two slightly too-short-by-law shotguns to an ATF informant. The ATF then tried to use that sale to leverage Weaver into the very dangerous position of informing on the white-supremacist Aryan Nations group.

Weaver believed some stupid and hateful things, but he wasn't looking to participate or even pretend to participate in some white-supremacist play-revolution, and he was charged after he refused to play ball with the ATF.

He posted bond, hunkered down at home, and didn't show up to answer the charges against him (and was actually given, at one point, an erroneous court date). That's a crime, and it's the feds' justification for everything that followed.

As the Spokesman-Review editorialized yesterday:

[F]ederal law enforcement agencies were caught up then in the hunt for criminals with  political axes. It was an investigation into illegal weapons manufacturing that snared Randy Weaver, who sold two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent. After posting a $10,000 bond, he gathered his family at a self-made cabin on a ridge in remote North Idaho.

The events of the ensuing standoff that were recounted in the Sunday paper by on-the-scene reporter Bill Morlin remain disturbing. Weaver’s poor judgment was trumped in multi-spades by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other lawmen angered by the loss of one of their own and unaware 14-year-old Samuel Weaver had died in the encounter.

In subsequent studies and testimony, the response was characterized as “terribly flawed.”

Many of the locals, even those not exactly enamored of the Weavers' odd-ball views, were thoroughly unimpressed by the penny-ante justification for the resulting siege. That was a siege that involved multiple federal agencies and led to deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan, Samuel Weaver, Vicki Weaver and a dog, and the wounding of Kevin Harris and Randy Weaver. During that siege, the FBI operated under Rules of Engagement that many local agents quietly rejected as too severe, and which a Senate subcommittee report later labeled, "virtual shoot on sight orders."

In his book on the incident, Ambush at Ruby Ridge, Alan W. Bock, one-time editorial page editor for the Orange County Register and an occasional Reason contributor, wrote of how, during the siege, many of the federal agents rented rooms at the Deep Creek Inn, owned by a Swiss immigrant named Lorenz Caduff. Caduff took their money and gave them polite service, But the agents couldn't have failed to notice that he made his business equipment and facilities available, free of charge, to those who were not sympathetic to the federal presence.

At the conclusion of the trial of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris, the jury acquitted Kevin Harris of all charges, and found Weaver guilty only of failure to appear on the original weapons charge, and violating the terms of his bail, The weapons charge itself, along with other serious charges, like murder and conspiracy, were tossed.

Some of the jurors then participated in the sentencing hearing, describing the treatment of the Weavers as an "injustice," sparring with the prosecutor and calling for short prison time for Randy Weaver.

In 1995, facing a lawsuit by the surviving members of the Weaver family, the federal government settled for $3.1 million. The New York Times reported, "lawyers involved in the negotiations said the size of the settlement was a tacit acknowledgment that officials feared a substantially larger verdict if the case had gone to a jury in Idaho."

To add insult to injury, the Boundary County prosecutor actually indicted FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, who had killed Vicki Weaver, for manslaughter — a charge later dropped amidst much political and legal maneuvering.

Even before Waco and Oklahoma City, the federal government had stuck its fingers out into flyover country — and yanked them back after a good scorching. These weren't just fringe groups exchanging newsletters and camping in the forest. There are so many of them that they own the businesses that service agents in the field, vote on juries and even hold local office!

That the lesson the feds took from all of this was a loss-of-innocence along "you folks really don't like us" lines has been its growing overt suspicion of ... well ... us. While much of the surveillance state and related anti-terrorism measures came in after 9/11, in many cases, they'd already been in the works.

When the Patriot Act was introduced in 2001, then-Senator Joseph Biden boasted, "I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill." True enough, the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995 bears strong enough similarities to the Patriot Act that we could be forgiven for thinking it was dusted off, polished and reintroduced when the moment arose. That 1995 bill was explicitly targeted at Americans in a decade full of fears about the "antigovernment movement."

And the growing phenomena of "fusion centers" combining federal, state and local talent to combat the dread threat of "terrorism" are designed to focus on the domestic landscape, where they have scrutinized a hodge-podge of political groups and activists who have nothing more in common than that they worry some bureaucrat. The feds have taken a closer look at the people they rule, and they don't like what they see.

Yes, twenty years on, Ruby Ridge continues to fan fears — among government officials, of the people over whom they exercise their power.