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Echoes from Ruby Ridge by Sven R. Larson

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Echoes from Ruby Ridge

Three decades ago, in the state of Idaho, the U.S. government engaged in a confrontation with a family living in isolation on the top of a mountain. The incident, which claimed three people’s lives, echoed for years in the American public discourse. Today, it still raises questions about the rights of individual citizens, the rights and limits of the state, and how far we can expect to isolate ourselves from society. 

The siege at Ruby Ridge

On May 11th, a man named Randy Weaver of Kalispell, Montana, passed away. He was at the center of the so-called Ruby Ridge incident in 1992.

Randy Weaver’s death made brief headlines in America but flew under the radar in Europe, except for a couple of mentions in British media. Superficially, this is understandable: the Ruby Ridge incident had a lot of Americana to it, with heavily armed citizens dispensing fiery anti-government rhetoric while homeschooling their children based on a hardline interpretation of the Bible.

However, beneath the surface, a moral question lingers for both Americans and Europeans: do we as citizens have the right to isolate ourselves and effectively secede from the rest of society? If we try to do so, does government have the right to intervene and force us back under its jurisdiction?

At the time of the Ruby Ridge incident, there was no shortage of libertarians who offered stern, unwavering support for every individual’s right to withdraw from society. Today, with more far-reaching government powers in both Europe and America, that libertarian concept comes across as even more appealing, does it not?

No, it doesn’t. The libertarian case that is made from the rubbles of Ruby Ridge is an irresponsible one. There is no such thing as an unlimited right of individuals to secede—to go in a domestic exile, of sorts. 

Before we get to the reasons why domestic secession should be approached with caution, let us return to that fateful mountaintop in northern Idaho.

Randy Weaver, his wife Vicki, and their children made the 1,500-mile (2,500 km) move from Iowa to northern Idaho in the early 1980s. They bought Ruby Ridge, a piece of land with a small home located not far from Bonners Ferry. In late August 1992, their peaceful existence ended abruptly: their property was surrounded by agents from the U.S. Marshals Service (the job of which is to apprehend criminals on the run) and from the FBI. 

When the standoff eventually ended, three people had been shot dead: Randy Weaver’s 14-year-old son Sam, a U.S. Marshals agent, and Randy’s wife Vicki. 

Police standoffs are a dime a dozen, and most of them never make the news. What set Ruby Ridge apart was its politically charged context, which became clear to the public while the 11-day siege was ongoing. The bullets fired during those fateful days echoed through American politics for years. 

Its impact was reinforced by subsequent events that many people saw in a similar context: the standoff between the federal government and the Branch Davidians religious sect in Waco, Texas half a year after Ruby Ridge; and the siege of the Montana Freemen ranch in 1996.

How it started

It is not entirely clear what set off the chain of events that caused the tragedy at Ruby Ridge. Some sources claim that Randy Weaver was set up by a federal law enforcement agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), on firearms charges. Regardless of whether Weaver recklessly committed the crimes he was charged with, or if he was the target of an entrapment operation, he broke the law by failing to appear in court to face the weapons charges. 

Since failure to appear is a crime in itself, a group of U.S. Marshals were dispatched to apprehend Weaver. While scouting the terrain, they ran into Randy’s son Sam and a family friend, Kevin Harris. 

A firefight broke out, leaving one marshal and Sam Weaver dead. 

Federal law enforcement immediately surrounded the Weaver property. On the second day of the siege, an FBI sniper shot Randy Weaver in the back as he was trying to visit the shed where his dead son was resting. As the family tried to withdraw to the cabin, the sniper fired a second shot. The bullet wounded Kevin Harris and continued through the cabin door, where it struck Vicki Weaver. 

She died holding her and Randy’s 10-month-old baby.

Nine days later, the siege ended, thanks in no small part to a volunteer, third-party negotiator. The government charged Randy Weaver with a number of crimes related to the standoff, but the only thing he was eventually convicted of was the charge that set off the entire siege: failure to appear in court. Kevin Harris was charged with murder in the death of the U.S. Marshal; he was acquitted of all charges.

It seems remarkable from here, 30 years down the road, that these men were found not guilty on so many charges. However, the acquittals must be seen in the context of what led up to the confrontation in the first place. There are many different accounts of how that happened; an official report from the U.S. Department of Justice places the point of time for first contact between Randy Weaver and the federal government in the mid-1980s. This was a time when Weaver allegedly attended meetings with an organization called “World Aryan Congress.” 

A federal informant who frequented their meetings befriended Weaver. The two got to know each other to the point where the informant initiated conversations about fighting the “Zionist” government. After three years, the firearms trade took place that led to Weaver’s missed court date.

The ATF tried to use the trade as blackmail against Weaver. When he refused to become an informant, they filed charges against him. 

Weaver has also been linked to the Christian Identity movement. Its doctrine includes the assertion that “the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Scandinavian, Germanic and kindred peoples are the racial descendants of the tribes of Israel.” Regardless of which organization Weaver preferred, he had the federal government’s eyes on him.

The ideological context

Whenever the background to Ruby Ridge is mentioned, it inspires dismissive reactions based on the very content of what the two aforementioned organizations believe. There is a prevailing notion that government must always target racists and white supremacists, because they are always dangerous. 

There may be good reasons to do so; there may be good reasons for government to constantly keep pressure on radical Islamists, Nazis, revolutionary communists, etc. However, as the Ruby Ridge incident shows, where Randy Weaver was later found not guilty on almost every charge, a person simply having outrageous beliefs is not reason enough for government to get involved in that person’s life.

If anything, the Ruby Ridge incident clarifies the line between two different kinds of people holding views we may all disagree with. On the one hand, we have the violent aggressor who kills others out of hatred. On the other hand, we have Randy Weaver, a person who may share all the basic beliefs with the aggressor but has no interest in acting on them. He simply wants to live in isolation.

A group of Islamists who kill Christians (as in Nigeria) are morally different from a group of islamists who isolate themselves in a village of their own, away from Christians, and simply practice their extremist beliefs among themselves. 

Randy Weaver is very different from Payton Gendron, the young white man who on May 14th walked into a supermarket in a black neighborhood in Buffalo, NY and shot 13 people. The former and his family are isolationists who simply want to be left alone; the latter is a terrorist in the same category as Islamist terrorists who slaughter Christians (the only meaningful difference being the scale of the atrocities). 

It is dangerous for a society to lose sight of the distinction between isolationists and aggressors. In principle, peaceful isolationists have the right to live according to their beliefs and convictions, no matter how warped they may be. Correspondingly, and again in principle, government has no right to interfere with the peaceful isolationist simply because he wishes to withdraw from society. There must be another reason given, one that—as mentioned—it is highly doubtful even existed in the case of Ruby Ridge.

Limitless isolation?

But wait: if isolationists have an unabridged right to withdraw from society, does that mean they can do so without regard for the repercussions for society as a whole? What happens if we all move to our own little Ruby Ridge?

A libertarian would end the conversation here. Individual sovereignty, he would explain, is all that matters. However, this view holds true if and only if the individual is capable of an atomistic existence; a society of a hundred Ruby Ridges is not necessarily stronger than a society of 99 fully integrated citizens and one isolationist. 

To see why, let us use one of the great modern libertarian thinkers to refute the libertarian argument for isolationism. In his Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), Robert Nozick distinguishes between different forms of governments, or states, with his main spotlight being on the so-called minimal state. Simply put, it is a traditional state that focuses on national security, law and order, and arbitration of civil disputes. 

In contrast, Nozick defines an ultra-minimal state, where individuals have the right to secede from the minimal state and live as sovereign individuals within its jurisdiction. The ultra-minimal state has no right to enforce law and order on those who have declared themselves sovereign, while they in turn can have no expectation of protection from the state. 

The ultra-minimal state is a proxy for what kind of society we would have if isolationism was practiced widely. 

But why wouldn’t this work?

The answer is chillingly simple. An isolationist community with dozens of members can easily be followed by hundreds, then thousands of people joining isolationist communities. While each de facto secession is perfectly acceptable from the individual viewpoint, each secession erodes the entity that is the state. With the state’s erosion comes the erosion of the nation which it governs. 

The most practical argument against unlimited isolationism is that which Ukraine has experienced: the invasion from a foreign military. However, there are others: a nation carries with it a cultural heritage, a moral, religious, and historical identity. When individuals and communities withdraw from the nation, they also withdraw from that identity. 

As our common identity fractures, our understanding of—and eventually respect for—the other isolationist communities, will also weaken. The slow erosion of what unites us magnifies what comes between us; the bigger the differences, the higher the risk for conflict.

Just as there is a fine—but essential—line between the aggressor and the isolationist, there is a crucial distinction between the desire to live in privacy, and the desire to abandon our common identity. The latter by no means follows from the former, and the former in no way implies the latter. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from Ruby Ridge is that both we the people, and our governments, must learn to respect the line between aggression and isolation, and the balance between privacy and common identity. Back there, on the mountaintop in Idaho, the federal government failed to do its part on both accounts. Did Randy Weaver fail to do the same?

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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