Montana militants where they belong In jail: FBI arrest of Freemen should be followed by vigorous prosecution.

June 16, 1996

PROSECUTION of the Montana Freemen should be as resolute and as consonant with the highest principles of American justice as the FBI siege that led peacefully to their incarceration. The defendants will be entitled to all the protections afforded rebellious citizens by the very government they loathe. In the end, the law must prevail, not least as a lesson to others who would try to take it into their own hands.

These right-wing militants, spouting their racist and anti-social theories, are not heroes. Some may have lost their land in the 1980s recession that hit the Mountain West. Some may have lost lawsuits or had liens filed against them. But that is no excuse for seizing the properties of their neighbors, for threatening kidnapping and death to county, state and federal officials just doing their job and for presuming they could "secede" from the Union.

Of course, there is something bizarre, something quixotic about this whole business. But underlying it all is the threat of death and violence, not only on the part of insurgents but of law-enforcement authorities. Terrible mistakes were made during the standoffs at Wounded Knee in 1972, at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and, most of all, in the fiery debacle at Waco in 1993 that led to the deaths of 80 persons. But the federal government learned some lessons -- not lessons always applicable to future episodes -- that succeeded in ending the longest siege in modern history without physical injury or loss of life.

This does not mean the ranchers and small-town residents near the eastern Montana redoubt where the Freemen holed up for 81 days did not suffer. For years they were intimidated as militants sought to take from them the very rights of property ownership and liberty that the Freemen demanded for themselves.

Now that the FBI has worn them down, after courageously resisting demands for more forceful action, the prosecutorial arm of government should seek the most severe penalties the law allows. There should be no deals, no conditions, no special favors, no plea bargaining.

Militia-style vigilante groups are a scourge in the land. They are not entitled to special privilege, not endowed with a righteousness that allows them to traduce their own country.

The Freemen should be tried before a jury of fellow citizens they would never have treated so justly. And any would-be copy cats should know, in the words of FBI director Louis J. Freeh, that "if you break the law the U.S. government will enforce the law." Exactly.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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