Will the showdown in Burns, Oregon, end with bloodshed, the way similar incidents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, did in the 1990s?
Not according to Clint Van Zandt. The FBI's former chief hostage negotiator told The Huffington Post on Monday that he'd be surprised if the bureau responded aggressively to the armed occupation of a federal building in Burns. Instead, Van Zandt says officials would be smart to treat the militants in Oregon with "infinite patience."
Van Zandt helped lead negotiations in Waco in 1993, where a 51-day standoff with cult leaders (called "Davidians") ended with the deaths of 76 people, many of them children. The Waco standoff began with a skirmish that killed six Davidians and four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Van Zandt believes the FBI played into the cult's hand by forcing a fiery, deadly showdown rather than de-escalating.
Waco was a "black eye" for the FBI, according to Van Zandt. Since then, he said, the bureau has placed a much greater emphasis on negotiation over physical confrontation. (The violence at Waco was preceded by a bloody standoff at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho a year prior.)
"The FBI has evolved since Waco," said Van Zandt. "The FBI has practiced -- and brings to a situation like [Oregon] -- an approach that advocates endless patience instead of overwhelming tactical advantage."
That seems to be an accurate description of how the bureau is handling the occupation in Oregon so far. A federal law enforcement source told The Huffington Post that the FBI would attempt to avoid unnecessarily escalating the situation with an aggressive response, particularly since there does not appear to be any imminent deadly threat. And the FBI said in a statement that it would work with local law enforcement to reach a “peaceful resolution.”
That's not to say that the federal government would back down from a firefight if provoked or if innocent lives were at stake, Van Zandt noted.
"Law enforcement can always eventually win in a firearm situation," the former negotiator said, though he cautioned that officials shouldn't let things get to that point.
"The reality is, you want to be able to show the criminal justice system, you want to show the American public that ... we did everything possible we could to resolve this nonviolently and yet violence was forced upon us," he continued.
And although some militia members have claimed they're not violent, Ryan Bundy, one of the people leading the occupation, told Oregonian reporter Ian Kullgren on Saturday that his group is "willing to kill and be killed if necessary."
If the name “Bundy” sounds familiar, that's because Bundy’s father, Cliven, orchestrated a similar showdown with the federal government in Nevada in 2014. That standoff ended peacefully, and according to Jack Kay, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and an expert on militias, the federal government was wise to step back and practice patience.
“These things tend to escalate, someone looks like they're going to pull the trigger and then something happens," he told Reuters at the time.
Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that moved to protect the land where Bundy was illegally grazing cattle, wasn’t so sure.
"Now that this precedent has been set and they're emboldened by the government's capitulation,” he told Reuters, “what's to stop them from applying the same tactics and threats elsewhere?"