The Wind From The Right

An extremist is someone who doesn't recognize common ground even when standing on it. - Anonymous Curmudgeon
By 1980 the winds of political and social change had been blowing from the Left for over 15 years. Now the wind was shifting to the Right. This affected me and people close to me directly.

Reactionary groups with names like Christian Patriots, Posse Comitatus and the Township Movement developed as a counteraction to a perceived leftward leaning of government and society. Movements for civil rights, free speech, women's rights, gay rights and environmental awareness all were associated with the Left. The right-wing groups had foundational premises based on a very fundamentalist interpretation of both the Bible and the Constitution. A term better known to people today would be the Militia Movement.

At least four political acts gave reactionary groups further cause for extremism.

The first two affected residents and employees of the state of Alaska. The 1978 application of the Antiquities Act removed 56 million acres of land in Alaska from development. Then, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA - 1980) set aside an additional 100 million acres. These acts encouraged public resentment and a lot of the knee – jerk acrimony was mistakenly directed against the more visible of state workers, particular those working for the Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Parks, where I worked.

Even the bureaucrats in the front office of the Division were blameless in this instance because these were Federal laws. Many of the public were misinformed and opportunistically vented their anger. Such anger was often fed by self-proclaimed iconoclasts promoting followings and subsequent financial gain. A negative encounter between a state worker and a member of the public was often inflamed by this misplaced enmity.

The Pick-Sloan Act (P.S.A.) of 1944 affected my family and many farm families and rural communities in the midwest. The P.S.A. was comprehensive legislation meant to control flooding on the Missouri River and provide hydroelectric power and irrigation. P.S.A. was backed by state, local and federal governments as well as the construction and energy industries. It was opposed by many local residents and farmers.

Many of the first affected were Native Americans on reservation and private lands that were then flooded by dams. The compensation for the condemnation and acquisition of those lands was oftentimes deemed inadequate, but Native Americans had little financial or political power in the 1940s and 1950s.

By the late 1960s further progress on the P.S.A. extended property acquisition in central North Dakota and provided for canals to transmit water from the Missouri River to eastern North Dakota for irrigation. Many farmers were forced off of their land. Again compensation was often considered inadequate. The was no benefit to irrigation near the Missouri because the fertility of the soil could be damaged by irrigation. Capillary action by running water can cause salt to rise from subsoil to topsoil in those areas. Additionally the canals themselves cut through and drained local aquifers.

Resistance to the P.S.A. pitted a coalition of farmers, environmental groups and right wing groups against a coalition of government and business interests. Then came the grain embargo.

In 1980, the U.S. Government stopped the sale of grain to the Soviet Union as a reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The result was that Soviet citizens went hungry and many American farmers went broke. This trade barrier had no affect on Soviet military action, but caused a recession in U.S. agriculture, with great human and economic cost. Thus began the greatest period of attrition in Rural America since the dust bowl days.

Many of the farmers who went broke had buried themselves in debt during the previous decade after higher grain prices gave them leverage to borrow more money. My father was a farmer, had known hard times, and bemoaned the decline of Rural America. Yet he was critical of the overuse of debt on the part of many farmers. He was also critical of the eagerness with which some loan agencies were willing to lend.

Because my job with the State Division of Parks was seasonal, I spent the winter of 1984 - 85 on the family farm in North Dakota. Between the social and economic detriment to the farm economy and the controversy over P.S.A., I witnessed something akin to a pot beginning to boil over.

One of my brothers who was a farmer had established a reputation of being an effective spokesperson for farmers against P.S.A. Since he had a Masters Degree in Farm Economics and perhaps because of the good will that came with his public persona, the State of North Dakota contracted him to help other farmers reorganize their debts to avoid foreclosure. As a result, right wing groups then considered him a government employee and circulated an "enemies of the people list" with his name on it.

Isn't that a bit like Rush Limbaugh being attacked by the Tea Party because he has a contract with the U.S. Government to broadcast to Armed Forces Radio?

Although nothing but bluster ever came from the "enemies list", it could have been worse. My family members and friends used non-violent means and negotiation to defend themselves against the combined actions of Big Business and Government. In contrast, there was a series of armed conflicts between right wing extremists and the Federal Government. Some believe the first of these was the Gordon Kahl incident.

Kahl was opposed to the income tax and a proponent of armed resistance to the Government. He is associated with a number of extremist groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Township Movement. Some people who were more moderate than Kahl and his associates were sympathetic of their positions, but not their methods. On February 13, 1983, Kahl and others were involved in a shootout with Federal Marshalls near Medina, North Dakota. Two of the agents were killed. Kahl fled to Arkansas where he was killed in another shootout by a sheriff who later died from wounds received during the gunfight.

Four souls, (three of them government workers) four sons, fathers, husbands and citizens died as a result of this event. Many say that Medina, North Dakota has never been the same.

Some in North Dakota were critical of both the extremists and the Feds. My father, a skilled marksman and grassroots activist against P.S.A. blamed both sides. He stated to me that he "didn't care for the Posse Comitatus – there's better ways to solve those problems" but also "the Government went about it all wrong."

Federal Law Enforcement officials didn't seem to go about it any differently following Kahl's death, except to arm themselves better. More violence followed. The standoff at Ruby Ridge resulted in three deaths. The debacle at the Mount Carmel Center near Waco Texas caused at least 85 deaths. The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City caused the deaths of 168 government workers and children. Opinions from the the right and the left of the political center hold that the perpetrators of this crime considered it to be revenge for Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Next - Not all soldiers are the same. Make A Separate Peace