I’m sure that Cliven Bundy probably could have cut a deal with the Bureau of Land Management and should have. Of course, it’s never wise to let a federal court order hang over your head. And certainly we cannot have a world of Cliven Bundys if a legal system is to function.
In a practical sense, I also know that if I were to burn brush on a no-burn day, or toss an empty pesticide container in the garbage bin, or shoot a coyote too near the road, I would incur the wrath of the government in a way someone does not who dumps a stripped stolen auto (two weeks ago) in my vineyard, or solvents, oil, and glass (a few months ago), or rips out copper wire from the pump for the third time (last year). Living in a Winnebago with a porta-potty and exposed Romex in violation of zoning statutes for many is not quite breaking the law where I live; having a mailbox five inches too high for some others certainly is.
So Mr. Bundy must realize that in about 1990 we decided to focus on the misdemeanor of the law-abiding citizen and to ignore the felony of the lawbreaker. The former gave law enforcement respect; the latter ignored their authority. The first made or at least did not cost enforcers money; arresting the second began a money-losing odyssey of incarceration, trials, lawyers, appeals, and all the rest.
Mr. Bundy knows that the bullies of the BLM would much rather send a SWAT team after him than after 50 illegal aliens being smuggled by a gun-toting cartel across the southwestern desert. How strange, then, at this late postmodern date, for someone like Bundy on his horse still to be playing the law-breaking maverick Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) in (the David Miller, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Abbey effort) Lonely Are the Brave.
But the interest in Mr. Bundy’s case is not about legal strategies in revolving fiscal disagreements with the federal government.
Instead, we all have followed Mr. Bundy for three reasons.
One, he called attention to the frightening fact that the federal government owns 83% of the land in Nevada. Note that “federal” and “government” are the key words and yet are abstractions. Rather, a few thousands unelected employees — in the BLM, EPA, Defense Department, and other alphabet soup agencies — can pretty much do what they want on the land they control. And note, this is not quite the case in Silicon Valley or Manhattan or Laguna Beach. The danger can be summed up by a scene I see about once a month on a Fresno freeway: a decrepit truck stopped by the California Highway Patrol for having inadequate tarps on a trailer of green clippings, just as a new city garbage truck speeds by, with wet garbage flying over the median. Who will police the police?