Twenty years ago today, a 14-year-old boy and a deputy U.S. marshal were killed in a tragic firefight on a nowhere hillside called Ruby Ridge.
The boy’s mother perished a day later in a second burst of gunfire.
What calculations could have triggered violence so out of proportion to a decision by family patriarch Randy Weaver not to show up for a hearing on weapons charges?
Unfortunately, hatred – to the point of murder – had seethed in the Inland Northwest for years prior to the deaths of William Degan and Samuel and Vicki Weaver. White supremacists, using Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations Hayden Lake compound as a rallying point, advocated the creation of a white haven in the Northwest – by any means.
A group that called itself The Order gunned down Denver talk show host Alan Berg in 1984, one incident in a spasm of crimes that ended with the immolation of leader Robert Mathews in a Whidbey Island showdown. Other individuals and cells counterfeited money, robbed banks or carried out bombings – including one at The Spokesman-Review Spokane Valley office – to further their evil cause.
The region was notorious for its radical racists, and far less known for efforts by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and like groups to counter the hatred. It was they who eventually prevailed.
But federal law enforcement agencies were caught up then in the hunt for criminals with political axes. It was an investigation into illegal weapons manufacturing that snared Randy Weaver, who sold two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent. After posting a $10,000 bond, he gathered his family at a self-made cabin on a ridge in remote North Idaho.
The events of the ensuing standoff that were recounted in the Sunday paper by on-the-scene reporter Bill Morlin remain disturbing. Weaver’s poor judgment was trumped in multi-spades by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other lawmen angered by the loss of one of their own and unaware 14-year-old Samuel Weaver had died in the encounter.
In subsequent studies and testimony, the response was characterized as “terribly flawed.”
It was far worse than that, as later events at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas and the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City grimly proved. And it fostered conspiracy narratives that thrive to this day, fanned by talk radio and loopy websites.
The attempted bombing here of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in January 2011 was a reminder that racial hatred lingers still. Resentment sours so much social, political and economic dialogue, the presidential campaign being Exhibit A.
Meanwhile, Sara Weaver has forgiven those who shot her brother and mother. It is good that she has found peace.
It may be too soon to suggest the rest of us embrace reconciliation as we go forward, but on this regrettable anniversary we should at least be mindful of the terrible consequences of needless confrontation.