Newspaper column: There are consequences to practicing civil disobedience

Cliven Bundy on his ranch in January. (AP photo by John Locher)

Have you ever contemplated the prospects of living a simpler, more self-sufficient, unencumbered life? Perhaps on a few acres of land with the nearest neighbor over the horizon, down a dirt road?

You could graze a few milk cows and make your own butter in a wooden churn, gather eggs from the chicken coop and wring the neck of a hen on Saturday for Sunday dinner. You get used to the stench of boiling feathers and the remnant pinfeathers on your drumstick.

A stream would irrigate your truck garden out back, as well as the fruit tree orchard and the hay field. The shelves of the root cellar would be stocked with Mason jars of canned fruits and vegetables.

Your leftovers and spoilage would slop the hogs so you can hang a couple of hams in the smokehouse.

You could graze a few beeves for market and slaughter. You’d compost the soil with the sweat of your brow. The hours would be long, the profits meager.

You’d merely have to worry about diverting more water than the government agents deem appropriate or letting a backfire burn onto public land or whether the government inspector catches you bartering an uninspected ham for a neighbor’s pure-bred rooster or letting your cattle wander onto public land without a permit.

Then you might find your lifestyle considerably altered.

In the 1840s transcendentalist philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau tried living such a nearly monastic life — as recounted in the book “Walden.” And he followed his conscience in refusing to pay the government agent’s poll tax, resulting in a night in jail — as recounted in the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau asks in that essay. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? …

“As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”

Thoreau’s commentaries are taught in public schools as enlightened examples of the value of individual conscience over the inexorable power of government.

When father and son Oregon ranchers were ordered to serve mandatory five-year prison sentences under an anti-terrorism law for the crime of letting fires set on their own private property accidentally spread and burn 140 acres of public land, it was clearly a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment — but they went quietly back to prison.

Sympathizers, however, occupied vacant buildings on a wildlife refuge for 41 days to call attention to the ranchers’ plight and are now also in jail for doing so. Ironically, because of the occupation, the feds had to call off a planned 4,000-acre controlled burn.

So far 19 people — several already charged in the Oregon occupation — have been indicted on various charges growing out of the standoff in Bunkerville when federal agents tried to confiscate Bundy ranch cattle two years ago. The press invariably mentions that Cliven Bundy owes $1 million in grazing fees, but never mentions that, if he had complied with the restrictions that came with such permits, he would have gone out of business 20 years ago.

The ranchers have been labeled scofflaws and welfare cowboys.

Those who practice civil disobedience — especially while heavily armed — do and should pay the consequences for endangering public safety, but real grievances should also be addressed and not eclipsed by the utter foolishness of a brash few.

A version of this column appeared a year ago in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.



14 comments on “Newspaper column: There are consequences to practicing civil disobedience

  1. Vernon Clayson says:

    Why is so much more made out of this instance than the almost daily incidents of civil disobedience in urban areas, e.g.,demonstrations at Trump’s campaign events, silly college demonstrations demanding safe places for different factions, demonstrators closing roads to make one or another silly demand, black lives matter marches??? Does the “wild west” image play a part in the Bundy incident, big hats and guns, or perhaps it depends on whether the feds take an interest or leave it to the local authorities to blunder through it. Blunder they will by federal standards and opinions.

  2. Steve says:

    Uh-oh, Tom made an effort to remind today’s “modern” Liberal what it means to be Liberal.

    Too bad they will ignore it and continue to be exactly what Liberals all claim to be fighting to eliminate.

    Power has corrupted the entire modern Liberal establishment.

  3. Patrick says:

    A simpler world. That’s what we need. And usually, simpler means, one filled with fewer people because the more people there are, the most complicated things get.

    I know I sure idealize the world Thomas described above. I’d like nothing more sometimes (without all the work required anyway) than to live away from the mass of humanity and just be left alone to do the things Thomas describes.

    But that world just gets smaller and smaller as the rest of the world crowds it out; sad really.

    But, it is what it is.

    But Thomas, your description of the ranchers and their plight is not really keeping with reality. They didn’t “accidently” let their fire burn up someone else’s land (leastways that’s not how the jury of their peers saw it) and argue with their sentence if you want, and maybe I’ll join you there, but when we’re passing out blame, I got to look straight at the “law and order” crowd mostly made up of them bad old republicans/conservatives that backed stronger and stronger laws for so many years that they were bound to sweep up some good ole boys in that net eventually.

    See, the law that the ranchers were convicted of came about mostly because the guys on the far right, got tired of seeing the bad ole federal judiciary stepping in and using habeas corpus to release people that were improperly convicted by state courts. This law, which was enacted on the heels of the terrorist bombings in OK, was used as a device, by those on the far right, to do what they’d been wanted to do (in the face of determined opposition by the left and some libertarians and even gun rights groups) which was to stop the bad old federal gov’ment from interfering in their business.

    “For years, Republican lawmakers had tried unsuccessfully to pass extremely restrictive habeas corpus laws, which control the degree to which federal courts can reconsider state criminal convictions. Toward the end of the 20th century, executions that were delayed because of federal appeals became a powerful symbol of how federal courts interfered with the state prerogative to punish criminals. Still, until the mid-1990s, the legislative motive for a restrictive habeas statute did not coincide with sufficient legislative opportunity. On April 19, 1995, however, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols detonated a bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

    Contract-With-America Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, held the party’s first majority in the House of Representatives since 1946….Notwithstanding a basic misalignment between the content and the catalyst of the legislation–the habeas provisions were all about state convictions, whereas McVie and Nichols were to be tried in federal court—the first order of business was to staple the completely unrelated habeas provisions to the anti-terrorism bill. Nor was there reason to stop there. Republican lawyers from the Senate Judiciary Committee drafted the legislation, poring through 50 years of failed crime bills. There was little in the way of outside consultation, and virtually none with Democrats. It was a lawmaking bonanza for anyone with a tough-on-crime provision. President Clinton signed AEDPA into law on April 24, 1996. The A in AEDPA stands for anti-terrorism, but the idea that all of its criminal provisions are (or were intended as) devices to combat terrorists is a farce.

  4. Vernon Clayson says:

    Patrick wrote a long story blaming Republicans then mentioned that Bill Clinton signed it, in the world of politics and the news media if a Republican President had signed it it would be all his fault, with Bill Clinton there’s no fault finding.

  5. Winston Smith says:

    So, throughout history, there have always been those that seek to control everybody else, those that will resist being controlled, and those that just act like sheep and go along with the control freaks, hoping nothing bad will happen to them…

    Which one are you, patrick?

    “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, & government to gain ground.” – Thomas Jefferson

  6. Patrick says:


    All people seek control. Even if they believe, all they are trying to control is the way they love their own life. That’s all well and fine when the world is as described by Thomas above (although even in his example there will undoubtedly be an impact on others) but when people live less than a stones throw away from another human, trying to control you own life, WILL diminish, to some extent, the control those other people have on their own life.

    There are those that imagine, in their fantasy world, that their actions should NOT be controlled by anyone else and that they ought to decide for themselves how they love their life no matter how much that impacts the rest of the world.

    Which one are you?

  7. Patrick says:


    What I wrote, at least the part contained within the quotation marks” was written by someone else. I guess you could point out some evidence that what the author wrote was incorrect, but other than pointing out, as the author did already, that the President who signed the bill filled with laws republicans were anxious to pass for years, I didn’t see it.

  8. How many “civil disobedient” arsonists and grand larcenists in Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore have been arrested, charged and prosecuted for their crimes by these Federal prosecutors???

  9. Steve says:

    Those places are not under Federal control Brien.

    It’s one of those examples that show why Easterners don’t understand what Westerners are complaining about when it comes to federal control of “public” lands.

  10. Patrick says:

    HFB: how many of them broke a law, or alternatively were charged with breaking the law?

    And since I’m sure that you believe in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, I’m guess the answer is “the ones found guilty”?

  11. Vernon Clayson says:

    Steve says Baltimore and Ferguson weren’t under federal control, perhaps he didn’t see that the FBI jumped in very quickly in the aftermath, not to prosecute the criminal element but to insure the criminals were given every civil right by the local officials. Every act the criminals did offended state and local laws, why the necessity for the feds to investigate the local investigators?

  12. Steve says:

    Land, Vernon.
    Not people,

  13. Vernon Clayson says:

    Land??? Are you asking the silly old question whether there’s noise when a tree falls and there’s no one around? There were people involved, vacant land and buildings were just that until people occupied them. No people, no problem.

  14. Steve says:

    So, Vernon, you like the idea of kicking people off the land.
    I think you are for the feds controlling 85% of Nevada!

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