A Tale of Two Terrorists? Leonard Peltier & Randy Weaver
Just over a decade ago, an organization known as The Order, a militant outgrowth of the Aryan Nation based in Idaho and violently dedicated to white supremacy, went on a crime spree that took several lives and resulted in thousands of dollars of property damage. The Order was soon destroyed, when several members were killed in a shoot-out and the rest were convicted. The efforts of the federal government were widely praised, a highwater mark for the organizations involved, the FBI, the ATF, the U.S. Marshals. Alas, they were not content. They spent the next decade attempting to infiltrate the Aryan Nation, using hundreds of informants. The scene became a spy comedy; informants weren't aware of each other, and, as often as not, their reports were on other agents. At one meeting, two of the three present were informants. All the while, the Aryan Nation was growing. Throughout the late '70s and '80s, white separatists, property rights advocates, Christian Identity believers and various other fringe groups, many of them right-wing, moved to places like Idaho in droves. They wanted to escape the persecution they faced because of their beliefs and the growing power of the government. One such person was Randy Weaver.Tragedy at Ruby Ridge Weaver's story is detailed in Jess Walter's new book, Every Knee Shall Bow, which takes its title from a sign outside the Weaver's cabin that read, "Every Knee Shall Bow to Yahshua Messiah." Walter's book is a full exploration of the raid, and of the Weavers' life before the tragic events. It makes for fascinating reading, and presents a strong case against the FBI. The only drawback is that while Walters is sympathetic to Weaver supporters, he ultimately comes up far short of a real condemnation. "How can you convince the American public that the government is not killing its own people," he asks in his introduction, "when that's just what they did in Ruby Ridge?" Walter, in other words, believes it necessary to convince the American people that these things don't happen, at least not usually, rather than to address the problem. Weaver moved to Idaho in the late '70s, running from Iowa to a mountain known as Ruby Ridge in the northernmost part of the state. He built a cabin and, with his wife Vicki, raised his children, teaching them about God, the dangers of the government, the evil of race mixing and about the use of weapons. He found a few friends who shared his beliefs, became a mentor to several wayward youth and made some enemies, some who did not share his views and others who may have but were disloyal. Weaver ran for Sheriff once, losing narrowly, and attended the Aryan Nation Congresses, playing a minor role. At the 1987 Congress Weaver met a man named Fadeley who was interested in forming a group like the Order. Fadeley was an informant for the ATF. Over the next few years, Weaver and Fadeley met a few times, and eventually Weaver illegally sold Fadeley two sawed off shotguns. No arrests were made, and several months later, after attempts to expand the weapons deal fell through, Weaver got a visit from a federal agent, who offered him a deal: help us catch these folks up in Montana and we'll drop the charges. Weaver refused, and was arrested a few months later. A trial date was set, then changed, and Weaver was told that, if convicted, he'd lose everything, even his children. He decided not to appear in court, and said he'd fight anyone who came for him. During a surveillance mission outside Weaver's cabin, U.S. Marshalls alerted the family dog of their presence. Weaver's 12-year-old son Sammy and Kevin Harris, a young man staying with the Weavers, ran down to investigate. A firefight ensued, and Sammy and Marshall William Deegan, were killed. Both sides blame the other, and it's unclear who fired first; there is some evidence the Marshals were at fault, but it's inconclusive. No matter, because things would get worse. The FBI and the ATF were called in, and given orders to shoot on sight. The next day, Weaver and Harris wandered outside to check on Sammy's body. They were carrying weapons, but didn't point them at anyone. Lon Horiuchi, an FBI agent, who claims he was defending helicopters overhead, helicopters no one else saw, began firing, hitting Weaver. Weaver and Harris raced back to the cabin, where Vicki, stood in the doorway, holding their baby. She was hit and killed. The Weavers would not come out for 10 days. Weaver and Harris were arrested, but were found not guilty of all charges. The next year, Weaver would win a $3.1 million judgment for the wrongful death of his wife. The Weaver tragedy is part of many histories. It is, first of all, part of the growing unrest in northern Idaho, where survivalists and others free themselves from a fascist government. It is also the story of an unjust government, where law enforcement officers, out to silence political enemies who posed little, if any, physical danger, far overstepped their bounds. The two histories, of political unrest and government persecution, are deeply intertwined, and not only in the Weaver case. Consider, for example, Leonard Peltier. Incident at Oglala A member of the American Indian Movement in the late '60s and early '70s, whose story is told in Peter Matthiessen's controversial book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peltier overcame a troubled youth to set himself right. But as an AIM organizer, he continued to earn the ire of police. Almost since its inception, AIM was under the government's microscope, and its members were prosecuted numerous times for crimes ranging from murder to petty theft. The pattern was always the same: whether or not the accused was guilty, virtually everyone knew the government was lying to make its case stick. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. With Peltier, it would. On June 26, 1975, Peltier and several other Indians, some members of AIM, some just friends and family, were at a cabin in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, on the Oglala Reservation. In late afternoon, several FBI agents showed up. One took a gun out of his trunk. An exchange of shots was heard, an exchange each side claims the other began. One Indian was hit, and would later die. An FBI agent was wounded badly. His partner took out a cloth and wrapped it around his arm. The man was almost certain to die. He did when someone, police say Peltier, shot both officers at close range. Hundreds of agents from the FBI, the ATF, the Tribal Police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave chase. Many arrived on the scene immediately, an amazing feat given the incredible distance they had to travel. Such a feat, said some, could not have been accomplished unless this was a planned raid. After several days, the fugitives were caught. Peltier was convicted of murder, and today remains in jail, where he will spend the rest of his life. Two Men, One Hero The Leonard Peltier saga bears some remarkable similarities to the Randy Weaver case. Both men belonged to organizations the federal government had been spying on for several years before their arrest. Both cases took place in the northwest, where most people want nothing more than to be left alone, an ironic notion given the heavy federal presence that has been there for several decades. Different as they are, AIM and the Aryan Nation are both manifestations of a long simmering discontent with the perceived oppression of a federal government that cared little for its people, that would kill those who stepped out of line, that had broken promise after promise. Both groups had a great deal of concern with land use. The Indians' land had been taken, forcing them onto the reservation where they now resided. While the Aryan Nation had no official policy, many of its members had grave concerns with the restrictions they faced in the use of private land; some would form a corps of the burgeoning property rights movement. But amidst these similarities, there are some even more striking differences. At base, they come down to this: while Weaver is free, and won over $3 million, Peltier is in jail, long forgotten by all but the most committed activists. The response of the public, perhaps not surprisingly, has been the same as that of the law. In the Weaver case there is general agreement that law enforcement agencies acted improperly. That view was a long time in coming, of course, and coincided nicely with the federal government's own point of view. For the last few years, a few supporters kept Ruby Ridge alive, while the media and government brushed it under the rug. Only after the Oklahoma City bombing was the government forced to confront its responsibility. They issued a mild reprimand, and the Senate decided to hold hearings. The media came on board, bringing with it the rest of the country. But we're there now, or almost, with general agreement that Randy Weaver got screwed. Not so with Leonard Peltier. Try the name out on your friends, and you'll likely get a blank stare, not the impassioned speech that might result at the mention of Weaver. Even the two books got vastly different responses. Every Knee Shall Bow, its author has said, has been very well received; Walters has appeared on numerous television shows, interviewed not about the veracity of the book but as an expert source. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse , on the other hand, was pulled from the shelves in some stores, when one of the principles filed a libel suit (later dropped) against Mattheissen. The question is, why? Why does one victim capture the hearts and minds of the media and the American public, while another is attacked, then forgotten? The answer, it seems, is that while both are examples of political persecution, the politics of one are less offensive than the politics of the other. Oh yeah, and race. Weaver is a white man, Peltier an Indian, and the life of a white man still means a lot more than that of an Indian. Weaver's beliefs, moreover, while outrageous, are part of America's tradition. His racism fits a nation that enslaved some of its people, refused them jobs and permitted their death, just as his religious views are rooted in the same Christianity many Americans believe in. Peltier's religious beliefs, far less deeply held than Weaver's, are an indigenous spiritualism foreign to most Americans. And his political views, demanding equality for American Indians, reject two centuries of official American policy. Weaver, in other words, may be a fringe player, but he lies within the limits of our culture and politics. He challenged the center perhaps, but it was a challenge we could understand. Peltier is located on the outside, acting, right or wrong, against hundreds of years of history. So what does it all mean? It means that until supporters of Peltier come together with supporters of Weaver, until populists from the right find common interest with populists from the left, and until the ever-present question of race is dealt with, we will continue to see law enforcement officials kill people on occasion and continue to watch helplessly as political prisoners get railroaded through the system, Senate hearings or no. And it means that while all of us are vulnerable to this sort of treatment, some, to paraphrase Orwell, are more vulnerable than others.