The US spotlight on the militiamen who took over government buildings in Oregon’s remote Malheur wildlife refuge earlier this month has faded significantly. Despite what critics of the misplaced priorities of the country’s media and policymakers might say, this should largely be considered a good thing.
The great shame is that what has been construed as the flipside of this fringe right wing movement — the threat of Islamic extremism — isn’t met with the same level of restraint and level-headedness on the part of politicians, bureaucrats and law enforcement agencies. While the constitution and gun-wielding 'patriots' in Oregon constitute a uniquely American phenomenon, these are broad lessons that can also be drawn for countries like Australia, similarly focused on 'the new threat', to the possible exclusion of other concerns.
To make things clear from the start: the somewhat breathless comparison that has been drawn between the contingent of ranchers led by the Bundy brothers and what could be called 'typical' Islamic terrorists is an imperfect one. While both espouse similarly misguided ideologies that are wholly at odds with the mainstream of society, there is a vast difference in the tactics and strategies of the two groups. This renders what might have happened had Muslims been the perpetrators in the nature refuge scenario very difficult to determine.
There is, nonetheless, an entirely valid and much larger point to be made on the amount and nature of resources, attention, and political currency that are spent on addressing the right wing and anti-government threat, compared with that of Islamic extremism, which does not always manifest in violence. This is particularly so when the country’s law enforcement agencies consistently acknowledge the former as being of greater magnitude. Nearly twice as many people have been killed by fanatical supporters of these other causes since the September 11 attacks.
While the temptation might be to demand, as many have in the case of Oregon, that responses to these peculiarly American strains of terrorism intensify to meet actions directed toward its Islamic counterpart, the reverse appears more in keeping with the established values of liberty-loving, pluralistic Western societies. The response to the Malheur occupation from government, police, the community, and the wider American public has appeared far more commensurate with the level of threat involved and informed by rational thinking than anything related with Islamic terrorism in recent years.
Cognisant that the militia involved has occupied a remote and low value piece of infrastructure, that they have very little chance of connecting their actions to any political outcome, and that — recalling past disasters such as the Waco siege of 1993 — direct engagement with force risks serious escalation, the authorities have chosen to merely wait out the occupation.
In this respect, the most pertinent comparative criticism of the response to Islamic extremism is actually on the foreign policy front, where direct military engagement with armed insurrectionists, however remote and potentially innocuous, has often exacerbated threats to the US and its interests. This is true even in the age of a supposedly more hands-off Obama, thanks to the well-established recruiting agency of drones. It also recalls the wisdom that Western policy and pronouncements should not seek to provide oxygen to the divide-and-conquer tactics of groups like ISIS. Given the considerably more hawkish foreign policies of almost all the contenders lining up to replace Obama next year, it is wisdom worth remembering.
On the domestic front it is of course difficult to argue in favour of a comparative strategy of containment against Islamic extremists who strike quickly and unannounced against high value targets. There are, however, opportunities to adopt more careful and conciliatory strategies in efforts aimed at preventing radicalisation more generally, particularly with the ever-increasing influence of the 'countering violent extremism' (CVE) doctrine, now enshrined in a new UN plan of action, as well as on the frontlines of the terrorism responses of the US, Australia and many other countries.
Here we should consider the fact that the Oregon militia falsely claims to represent the interests of an increasingly marginalised but still largely law-abiding and rational community of people. Rather than bypassing the concerns of this community, or seeking to make its members proxies for its own agenda, US federal authorities have allowed them to develop their own strategy for dealing with the issue and offered the appropriate level of distance and monitoring. This is not an approach that has typically been implemented in the somewhat analogous Islamic extremism example.
Unfortunately, policy responses to such matters tend to interact with public opinion and media influence in an unhealthy feedback loop, and it is difficult to now normalise new, more rational approaches to responding to Islamic terrorism. It is indeed increasingly difficult for previously inclusive societies to abide by the ongoing incorporation of Muslim citizens, as the profoundly ugly rhetoric, and behavior moreover, of Donald Trump and his supporters attest.
Still, there is at least one promising area of almost direct comparison between the public responses to the Oregon occupation and the threat of Islamic extremists: they have both illustrated a growing propensity to meet earnest appeals for recruits to their causes with ridicule, with the quite hilarious barrage of sex toys being sent to the ranchers echoing the increasing trade in ISIS satire across the world.
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