Monday, January 04, 2016

Saudi and Oregon convictions: similarities

The anti-rancher moves and sentiment differ from the Sunni sectarianism less than we think

A few days ago, a judge in the (Sunni) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ordered the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a (Shiite) cleric, and 46 other people. They were charged with terrorism. At some level, almost all Islamic clerics are terrorists. However, from a broader viewpoint, it's obvious that clerics are much less typical terrorists than many others. It was guaranteed that the execution would lead to protests in the (Shiite) Islamic Republic of Iran. Lots of angry protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia reacted to the protests and cut the diplomatic ties with Iran.

A seemingly completely unrelated series of events took place in Oregon. Dwight Hammond (father, now 73) and Steven Hammond (son, 46) were two farmers who needed to protect their property in faraway, basically uncivilized corners of Oregons from wildfires back in 2001-2006. They lit the fires on federal land to safely burn some invasive (and for the farmers dangerous) plants. A court decided it was a violation of the law and the father has served 3 months and the son has served 12 months in prison. They have also obediently paid a huge $400,000 fine.

Such farmers have been taking care of those areas for a very long time – it used to be business-as-usual. The farmers' reasons to lit the fires certainly make some sense. As the self-confidence of the federal government continues to grow and expand to increasingly detached and previously independent territories (and also to much more intimate rooms of your and every house), the risk of similar clashes increases. The local ranchers may be rather ordinary people but in many cases, they probably know what to do with the land much more than a bureaucrat who spends his life in an office.

In the U.S., the government is supposed not to be omnipotent and citizens have the right to defend themselves against the government as well. They may very well be proven right. This is a basic principle that some people want to question, I will argue.

At any rate, the Hammonds have served their time and the emotions seemed to have returned to the (new) normal. But an explosive problem occurred in October. A federal judge referred to the U.S. "minimum sentencing law" and ruled that both Hammonds were supposed to spend additional 4 years in the prison or so! This is a rather aggressive move if you realize that the two men may have done the right thing to start with – and they have behaved loyally as prisoners. You might say that if a judge wanted to ignite a new civil war in the U.S., he or she has found one of the most effective ways to do so.

(I have no idea whether the "minimum sentencing law" really forbids the original 3-month and 12-month sentences – and why the other lawyers have overlooked that fact if it does. I am not a lawyer and I am evaluating the legitimacy of similar verdicts from the viewpoint of legally rather informed common sense. The idea that a rather random judge may suddenly lengthen the term from a past trial generally sounds insane to me because that could allow judges to jail millions of people at an arbitrary moment.)

This longer prison sentence has been too much for the Hammonds and their friends, including the Bundy family. So hundreds of members of their militias took their weapons and staged a sit-in in one of the local environmentalist bureaus that belong to the federal government. The sit-in is completely analogous to various sit-ins organized by left-wing activists of many kinds. But when the people dissatisfied with the powerful seem "conservative", the fanatical left-wingers don't call it a sit-in anymore. Instead, they compare the ranchers to Al Qaeda. So the Twitter is full of the #YallQaeda hashtag.

Let me finally return to the comparison promised in the title. What is the similarity between the Saudi and Oregon events?

In both cases, we saw some tension between the powerful and increasingly self-confident government on one side; and a small but not insignificant "opposition group" (which has to use the tools of a "weaker side of an asymmetric warfare") on the other side. The opposition groups were doing something inconvenient to the governments – and they thought that the government was overstepping its natural rights when it was suppressing the opposition groups' acts. In both cases, someone from the opposition group got convicted (although the Saudi punishments are more brutal, of course). In both cases, friends of the convicted people organized a sit-in (either in the Saudi embassy in Iran, or the much more peaceful sit-in in the environmentalist bureaucratic building in Oregon). And the people staging the sit-in continue to be demonized.

It's hard to say "who is right". I have mixed feelings about both situations. For many years, I have considered Saudi Arabia to be more capable of a peaceful co-existence with other countries, religions, and sects than Iran. Its alliance with the U.S. was helpful for the region, I have thought (and I still largely think), and the excesses didn't visibly transcend the Saudi borders. Iran was a member of the Axis of Evil and I thought that this label was well-deserved.

However, in recent years, I do feel that the behavior of Saudi Arabia is pretty much unacceptable, especially for a U.S. ally, and Iran is actually behaving in a calmer, more civilized way. The Saudis may be de facto supporting the ISIS as well. And I think that the execution of the Shiite cleric and others was way too much. The Iranian government has avoided excessive reactions and I praise it for that "absence of grave mistakes" so far.

The farmers have probably violated some environmental or other federal regulations. It's not hard to do so. I think that they're less likely to be familiar with the law or to have a true respect to the authors of the laws. And these laws and regulations were basically written by "one side of the conflict in Oregon", a side very close to the federal government, which sort of makes it unfair to refer to this law too authoritatively. So it's very likely that the people who staged the sit-in have violated some laws – much like the left-wing activists during sits-in do – but I do have lots of sympathies for their behavior, anyway. They are defending their right to do rather ordinary things in the land they inhabit against federal regulations that want to intervene "everywhere", even at places where there are not too many good reasons why the life should be determined by someone else than the local people.

The late Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia had some natural friends – most people in Iran. Even though I am not a farmer, I feel it's natural for us to play a similar role of foreign friends of the farmers.

Both in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S., there are lots of people who are thinking within the framework of a government that has the absolute power. Every sentence disagreeing with the Sunni dogmas and every sit-in in a bureaucrats' office is the ultimate crime from their viewpoint. They are dreaming that the Saudi or Obama governments shows its infinitely strong muscles to those who dare to disagree. But the U.S. federal government doesn't have infinite muscles and shouldn't have infinite muscles.

A particular example of the U.S. citizens' attitudes that are very close to the Saudi totalitarianism may be found in Edward Pig Measure who wrote the article
Islamic Militia Invades Federal Installation?
on his blog. He wants to claim that the sit-in is equivalent to a terrorist attack by the Islamists. To make his story more juicy, he argues that the militias should be charged with treason.

How the left-wing demagogues, including much of the media, describe events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Oregon.

Now, this is a great example of an extremist lunacy. To charge the farmers who think that the federal environmentalist regulations are evil counterproductive junk with treason would be completely analogous to charging a cleric with terrorism because he happened to be a Shiite in Saudi Arabia. It's simply not something that may happen in a civilized country. Saudi Arabia isn't a civilized country but for more than 2 centuries, the United States of America have been a civilized country.

Some of the founders of the U.S. occasionally used the word "treason" for many kinds of inconvenient opposition but this habit disappeared in the early 19th century, more than 200 years ago. I think that all people who really "belong" to the West agree with me that a treason requires one to team up with some external forces that want to weaken or destroy the traitor's country. The farmers and the Oregon militia members are U.S. citizens whose behavior isn't linked to any foreign entities or interests at all so it would clearly be indefensible to talk about treason here. The tension in the Oregon building is a manifestation of a disagreement between two a priori equally legitimate groups of U.S. citizens.

At Measure's blog, Cynthia made some comments I have agreed with. She has pointed out that the federal government has been employing strong-arm tactics. And she also reminds everyone that the sit-in was a protest against the extra prison sentence for the Hammonds, a fact that is thankfully told even to the readers of CBC in Canada, as the hyperlink shows. But even this fact – an explanation why the militia did what it did – seems inconvenient to Mr Measure.
Even if what you claimed were true, and I very much doubt it, it's completely irrelevant to the occupation of the federal building.
Oh, really? So the very reason why the sit-in took place is "completely irrelevant" to the sit-in itself? How can the cause of an event be completely irrelevant to the event? It is very clear what Mr Measure actually wants to achieve by this bizarre claim about the irrelevance. And it's the following.

He wants to turn the very reason of the farmers' behavior into a taboo. He wants them and all their friends to shut up. He wants no one to be able to listen to their side of the story. And he wants to organize a political monster process that my country has witnessed in the 1950s in which the defendants can't defend themselves and in which the verdict is clear and known from the beginning. This is the most generally valid wish of Mr Measure – and tons of other left-wing activists – in similar situations.

This wish is more or less isomorphic to the government-linked Saudis to destroy any sign of dissent. Sorry but the Western civilization doesn't work like that. The militia's act was an act of defense, they are allowed to point this fact out, other people watching the events should hear it. And the courts may decide whether this defense was appropriate, legitimate, and agreed with all the laws regulating sit-ins. I guess that the sit-in wasn't quite legally kosher but the participants still have the indisputable right to believe that the bonus prison sentence is an outrageous decision; and they have the right to make others hear that this was the motivation for their activity.

(The extra prison sentence would have an easy, straightforward solution in Czechia. The lawyers of the Hammonds would send a letter to the president and ask for amnesty; and the president would grant it because the extra prison sentence is both crazy and dangerous. That's why the Hammonds could hand themselves in, which they plan to do in Oregon, anyway. Well, Zeman wouldn't grant it because in the wake of the hysterical negative reaction to Klaus' amnesty in early 2013, he has promised not to make any amnesties – but other presidents could. This is a typical example of a situation which show how useful an institution the amnesty is.)

People like Mr Measure are obsessed with the construction of a totalitarian society in which the government and its uncritical allies have the absolute power while the opponents may be and will be totally destroyed and they won't even be allowed to say why they did what they did. In Mr Measure's "ideal" world, the government will distort the motivation of everyone who doesn't 100% agree with the pushy, arrogant, strong-armed, authoritarian, left-wing government. The government will sling mud on (or destroy) anyone who may look potentially dangerous and it will make sure that everyone (including schoolkids) will hate those who dared to disagree with the government, the new big devils.

Sorry, Mr Measure, but people like you don't belong to the United States of America. I urge you to move to Saudi Arabia or North Korea.

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