The Oregon standoff has included the frequent use of the word “terrorism” to describe the Bundys and their associates. Because of my research into revolutionary warfare, I’m not surprised that words like “terrorists” are used as tools to delegitimize political actors. My research projects have included insurgencies into the Late Roman Empire, samurai warfare in medieval Japan and the Chinese Civil War from 1927-1934. (The latter of which is my proposed dissertation topic at Kings College London.) In every period I found that the use of the term robber or bandit connoted specific differences in power between the central government and the perceived illegitimacy of new actors and centers of power. As a result, this led to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate.
What was most interesting is that the new powers were often a mix of local officials with private soldiers that gained autonomy in the chaos, invading barbarians (or revolutionaries) that were alternatively courted and opposed by the government and often given official titles, protective groups of war bands, and some old fashioned predatory robbers that fit the traditional idea behind the term. To cite one example, Mao Zedong actively courted local groups of bandits, and echoing Giddiahni’s letter located in the Book of Mormon (3rd Nephi 3), he even offered their secret societies forgiveness and an oath of friendship in exchange for rejoining the revolution.
Roman elites had private soldiers called bucellarii loyal to them and not the government, because those armed bands operated independently of government control historians often called them robbers. As de facto power holders the far off Eastern Roman emperor eventually courted these leaders and granted many of them official status, including such war lords as Childeric, Clovis, Alaric, and the Scourge of God Attila the Hun. and he eventually rose to become an official governor of the provenance. In medieval Japan, local power holders jealously guarded their rights, and often labelled agents of the Shogun as “akuto” or “evil gangs.” Those that were labelled Akuto sometimes formed economic cartels to strengthen their power, and used hired muscle to ensure the cooperation of local farmers, collect taxes, and resist rival akuto. Despite these activities, often their only crime was being an agent of a government not recognized by local court officials!
In short, there is a great deal of confusion between illegal bandits and rival armies and the legitimate use of force directed by government officials. As Susan Mattern said in describing anti Roman insurgencies, “The difference between a bandit, a tribal chief, a petty king, or the leader of a rebellion could be open to interpretation; many individuals are located in more than one of these categories by the ancient sources.” Often times, especially in ancient history, but always in contested lawless regions, the only difference between a robber (bandit, or member of an evil gang) and a tax collector was the perceived legitimacy of the actors. Chiang Kai Shek for example found his strongest tactic during the Fifth Bandit Suppression and Encirclement Campaign was to harness the locals’ ability to shakedown merchants to and from Communist base areas and call it a tax. Despite most of the “robbers” having at least some form of legitimacy they were stigmatized with the dismissive and often inaccurate term.
These terms are used in such non clinical ways because as historians John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote that:
Words themselves are weapons…Language is used to isolate and confuse enemies, rally and motivated friends, and enlist the support of wavering bystanders… Revolutionary soldiers are often called ‘bandits’, in effect denying them the legal status of combatants, and their supporters described as ‘criminals’ or ‘traitors’. Government forces become ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘mercenaries’ the government itself being ‘fascist,’ corrupt,’ or a ‘puppet regime’….In revolutionary war there can be no neutral, apolitical vocabulary.
We see the potency of words today as well. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.” Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage. In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. Thus policy makers use the rose-by-any-other-name term “ethnic cleansing” instead.
In conclusion, most people who accuse the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unware of the long history of using emotionally charged words that obscure more than they clarify. I certainly disagree with their actions, but I’m even more bothered by the casual use of emotional charged words that do little to accurately describe behavior or prescribe public policy. They instead simply seek to incite public opinion by using emotionally charged words instead of marshalling clear evidence and thoughtfully articulated positions.
[Morgan Deane is a historian that teaches at BYU-I and the author of, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon. His is currently pursuing his PhD and working on Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: A Revisionist History of the Book of Mormon.]
What are your thoughts regarding use of words to describe the people in the Oregon Standoff?
 For the record, I think their general demeanor, lack of education, radical militant libertarianism, and attempted revolt do plenty to deny them legitimacy.
 Morgan Deane, “Groping in the Dark: Reassessing the Military Leaderhips of Mao Zedong during the Jiangxi Period; 1927-1924, New Research in Military History Conference, London September 25th, 2015. https://thoughtsonmilitaryhistory.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/conference-new-research-in-military-history/
 CCP Kwang-Chang Central Committee, A Few Words to the Brethren of the Big Sword Society, December 22nd, 1933. Chen Cheng Collection, Reel III, no. 16, Hoover Library, Stanford California.
 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 6.45; Sevirnius, The Life of St. Sevirniua, 31, 42.
 Lorraine Harrington, “Social Control and the Significance of the Akuto.” Court and the Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History (Yale Press, 221-250). Ed Jeffrey Mass and William Hauser.
 Susan Mattern, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor Davis Hanson eds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 169 (163-184).
 Notice the use of the term “bandit suppression” in what were essentially campaigns in a civil war. William Wei. Counterrevoluation in China: Nationalists in Jiangxi during the Soviet Period. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985) 120-130.
 John Shy and Thomas W. Collier, “Revolutionary war” in The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Peter Paret Ed. (Princeton, Princeton University Press 1986) 815-862, (821).
 In reality there were a mix of trans national terrorists aggravating local insurgencies, see David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big Ones (Oxford University Press: 2011).
I agree with you mostly….but I think most people who are using it are using it correctly according to the FBI’s own definition:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
How would you define terrorism?
I agree that the Oregon protesters should not be called terrorists. Whatever the FBI says, terrorists should at least be spreading terror in the target population, and these guys are spreading more mirth (see the boxes of dildos) than terror. Not sure what to call them, however. Trespassers seems too mild.
One nit pick on ethnic cleansing. There is a useful distinction to be made between genocide and ethnic cleansing. The latter is a geographic concept. Leaving is an option. Death is a consequence only if you don’t leave. With genocide, leaving is not an option (as it was not for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe after a certain point.) The perpetrators are literally trying to eliminate your group’s genes from the collective gene pool and death or sterilization are the only options. In most cases, ethnic cleansing is actually the more accurate term.
Thats a great question. (Aren’t you under nomination for best commentor? That makes sense.) The short answer is the FBI’s definition is fine, its the comparisons with it that create the problem for me.
Now for the long answer. (I don’t get to talk about this all that often. It seems 90% of my time spent as a professor is explaining whats in the syllabus.) The methodological problem in your question is seen in the way that people often call Mormonism a cult. Not surprisingly thats another emotionally charged word. But people give the cult a definition of x, y, and z, and then they of course find x, y, and z, and declare the case over. But I always point out, you can take the same definition of a cult and show how just about any religion fits. (Just to really prove my point I always pick their religion and do it.) Of course, there is a whole cottage industry and eternal debate over the relative strength and weaknesses of ancient comparisons or 19th century comparisons and the Book of Mormon. Thats because comparisons often come a bit too easily.
On top of that, there are some debates over the definition of terrorism. Of course, since the word itself is so controversial, and its used as a weapon in many cases thats to be expected. The FBI definition is great but not the final word. Thus using a weaker methodology with a contested definition doesn’t make the strongest case.
Finally, there are some important contrasts between this group and the Oklahoma city bombers. (I’m picking rather obvious terrorists, plus both involved people roughly from the same population and a government building.) They both unlawfully targeted government buildings with force. But one group chose a time when the building was full and they damaged over 300 buildings around it and killed or wounded hundred more. The OK city bombers struck without warning or mercy to create fear. The Bundys selected a vacant building in the middle of nowhere. Nobody has been hurt. They’ve sent out their message and gotten lots of media, but I can’t say they’ve done it through fear created by violence The OK city bombers, as the name suggests, bombed the building. The Bundys have taken possession of it, and threaten to defend themselves. But with those large caveats in mind they are still relatively peaceful. Really, outside of saying they will defend themselves, what violence have they committed? Even that promise or threat is only theoretical thus far. Of course threatening violence could be terrorism, there is a law called making a terroristic threat. But they are threatening to resist law enforcement. I trust lawful authorities can simply deny them access to resupply and end this without firing a round. Thats more like a weak and passive aggressive revolt.
Thats why based on their language, tactics, and objectives, as well as the historical context provided by previous armed revolts, I would say they are closer to the members of Shay’s or the Whiskey Rebellion than terrorists.
In short I think they might come close to the definition you provide, especially when comparisons are easy to come by. But I don’t think they are terrorists. Thanks. 🙂
Most people are unaware of the extent that they are governed by private special interests in the US. For example did you know that the Federal Reserve is not a government agency, rather it’s a private monopoly to create money out of thin air and charge you interest for it?! In practice it acts independantly while pretending to have some sort of loose ill-defined Congressional oversight.
Once you begin to understand the degree we are all being subjected to this private control determining who the Robbers are in this standoff becomes very difficult to discern.
I suspect in part this standoff has a lot to do with Federal overreach vs States rights and this lies at the bottom of it: The Act of 1871 – Two Constitution’s of the United States
This definitely has to do with local control vs. federal control of Western lands, but the question at hand is whether “terrorism” should be an appropriate label for the actions of the group.
The colloquial use of “terrorism” is emotionally charged because it implies injury to civilians with an implied threat of more civilian injury in the future. That’s why I think the use of the word terrorist (while completely justified according to the FBI’s technical definition per Kristine’s quote) is questionable in the public sphere for this situation. The risk of injury is limited to militia members (who voluntarily put themselves in harms way) and law enforcement officers. Law enforcement officers additionally know exactly where the threat is coming from and how to best prepare for possible bad outcomes.
Let’s say you had a bank robbery where a team of armed robbers were holed up with law enforcement outside. The robbers have clearly broken the law, no question about that. It’s a charged situation, but it makes a big difference if the lives of hostages are at stake versus just the lives of the robbers themselves.
The use of the word “terrorism” or terrorist is simply done to further erode your rights while increasing the rights of the state. Calling you a terrorist even though you’re not allows the state to take actions beyond normal criminal action largely ignoring your rights in the process and feeds their propaganda machine. It is overreach that is done on purpose…and so what?…what are you going to do about it? We are very quickly becoming a police state!
The way it’s done is very simple. The state looks the other way while some group does a terrorist act, then it’s propagandized via main stream news causing public fear which leads to public outcry which leads to you giving up your rights in the belief that the state will better protect you if you do. Hint: it won’t!
The formula for *manufactured consent* is simply: Problem + (fear) Reaction = Solution.
Not terrorists. Martin Luther King wasn’t a terrorist, either.
What’s Really Going on in Oregon! by KrisAnne Hall, Constitutional Attorney
I like your example of how finding ways to apply labels to large groups you wouldn’t think are in it lessens the emotional gut reaction to a word (cult). When people call Mormons non-Christian I don’t get upset I just say” by your definition I’m not but by my definition I am.” The more older I get the more I see cult-like behaviors in our own and other organizations. Eh. Just not getting too riled up over it.
It’s also hard to have the conversation about how Oregon “militia” (they shouldn’t be called that, either) is getting along without comparing it to other recent protests in our country and why the responses are different (occupy Wall Street, BLM, etc.). There are a lot of fascinating things to dissect.
For example, the specific event that got them here in Oregon was Federal Minimum Sentencing rules. They are correct FMS is bananas, and it’s been decimating families and communities for decades, but they only cared about it when it happened to someone that looks exactly like them.
(As a PS I do understand their main complaint is federal lands in the west, but they are also protesting ranchers being imprisoned for burning federal land to cover up their poaching evidence. Which….whatever.)
Whatever anyone cares to call them, I just sent a donation in their name to support kids who conserve public lands. I’d rather feed those kids and improve access and services to all taxpayers than criminals who seize the property of the American people and defy the rule of law
Sheriff Mack on Oregon Standoff
Burns Oregon–Better quality interview with Ammon Bundy