This week, two decades ago, Americans were watching reports of the horrific escalation of the events that occurred in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where agents of the Federal government terrorized and killed members of Randy Weaver’s family after he failed to appear in court on a charge of selling to an undercover Federal agent shotguns that were slightly too short.
The standoff began on Aug. 21, 1992 when agents skulking through the woods near Weaver’s secluded residence happened upon his son Sam Weaver and friend Kevin Harris along with a family dog. The agents, alleging the dog had tried to attack them, killed the animal. The Weavers’ 14-year-old son, not realizing who had fired at his dog, fired a shot in response before attempting to flee; he was shot in the back. A gunfight between the agents and Harris ensued, resulting in U.S. Marshal William Degan’s death.
The agents later shot Weaver’s wife, Vicki (who was holding a 10-month-old baby in her arms), in the face as his teenage daughter Sara ran toward her mother and the safety of their home.
After his surrender and trial, both Weaver and Harris were cleared of the most serious charges stemming from the incident.
From Reason in October 1993:
On July 8, 1993, in what The New York Times called “a strong rebuke of the Government’s use of force during an armed siege,” a jury in Boise found Randy Weaver, 45 and almost always described in the media as a “white separatist,” and family friend Kevin Harris, 25, not guilty on six of eight counts, including murder of a U.S. marshal, conspiracy to provoke a confrontation with the government, aiding and abetting murder, and harboring a fugitive.
Weaver was found guilty on two minor counts: failure to appear on an earlier firearms charge and violating conditions of bail on the same count. As of this writing, he is still in custody, with sentencing scheduled for September 28. Although the maximum sentence for the two crimes is 15 years, his sentence is likely to be about a year, roughly the amount of time he has already served. Kevin Harris went free the day of the verdict.
It seems, however, that at least some within the FBI were aware that what they were doing was unlawful and unConstitutional as demonstrated by a memo written by FBI Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson while the siege was under way:
Something to Consider
1. Charge against Weaver is Bull Shit.
2. No one saw Weaver do any shooting.
3. Vicki has no charges against her.
4. Weaver’s defense. He ran down the hill to see what dog was barking at. Some guys in camys shot his dog. Started shooting at him. Killed his son. Harris did the shooting [of Degan]. He [Weaver] is in pretty strong legal position.
The U.S. Marshals considered Weaver a very dangerous man who was affiliated with various “right-wing” hate organizations and who, they were told, had spoken ill of Federal government officials and likely posed a significant threat.
In 1995, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report that called the threat-profile that the government had compiled about Weaver seriously flawed, noting:
…as marshals investigating the Weaver case learned facts that contradicted information they previously had been provided, they did not adequately integrate their updated knowledge into their overall assessment of who Randy Weaver was or what threat he might pose. If the Marshals made any attempt to assess the credibility of the various people who gave them information about Weaver, they never recorded their assessments. Thus, rather than maintaining the Threat Source Profile as a living document, the marshals added new reports to an ever-expanding file, and their overall assessment never really changed. These problems rendered it difficult for other law enforcement officials to assess the Weaver case accurately without the benefit of first-hand briefings from persons who had continuing involvement with him.
Two decades after the incident at Ruby Ridge, law enforcement officials and the Department of Homeland Security have made it easier than ever before to define American citizens as right-wing extremists. All the while, law enforcement down to the smallest hometown police departments have become militarized to the point of or beyond how the agents at Ruby Ridge were equipped.
The paranoid and ever-expanding security apparatus has, in the time since Ruby Ridge, created information “fusion centers” where they compile threat-profiles about religious people, pro- and anti-abortion activists, environmental activists, Ron Paul supporters, Tea Partiers, Constitutionalists, and just about anyone else who has a political opinion.
The Patriot and other Federal acts have given government the power to spy on any person at any time without warrant. And the President of the United States has made clear that Federal operatives reserve the right to kill American citizens that they deem “enemy combatants” or to indefinitely detain them without trial.
Law enforcement was met with condemnation for tactics of haphazardly profiling as a dangerous radical and carrying out a shoot-first-think-later operation against Weaver and his family; two decades later, however, it seems to many people that government has adopted the dangerous policy as a way to exercise its power over all Americans.