Magazine | May 5, 2014, Issue

Bureaucratic Warfare

Circa 1965, when the War on Poverty was just about to be won and total federal spending stood at $118 billion, a Woody Allen routine called “The Police” went as follows: “I was once sitting home in my house, and a lot of cars pulled up around the house. They shined in searchlights, and I heard a voice over the loudspeaker say, ‘We have your house surrounded. [Pause.] This is the New York Public Library.’”

Here the audience on a classic recording of the act can be heard breaking into laughs, which grow as Allen waxes ever more absurd: “They wanted their books back. . . . The little librarian was lobbing grenades over the house. . . . They took me down to the main branch on Fifth Avenue in New York, and they took away my glasses for a year.”

Happy days, when the idea of armed librarians was farce. It’s been a couple of years since most of us learned that more than 70 federal agencies have habitually armed themselves, including the EPA, the Department of Education, the Federal Reserve Board, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the IRS, and (at least until 2009) the Library of Congress. You may think of the regulatory octopus as a gentle blob of bureaucratic corpulence that blocks out the sun, but octopi don’t order 174,000 rounds of hollow-point bullets each year the way the Social Security Administration does. Every bureaucrat is, ultimately, backed by lethal force. All that firepower creates an itchy federal trigger finger.

Down in Venezuela they have a nice word for the armed pro-government mobs that render political disputation in Latin America so high-caliber: They’re “colectivos.” Reuters helpfully explains that these roving armed bands “view themselves as the defenders of revolutionary socialism but are denounced by opponents as thugs.” For those searching for a catchall term for American Rambocrats, check and check.

Unlike their colectivos, though, ours are official government agencies. In Nevada, one of them, the troops from the Bureau of Land Management, seemed eager to stage Waco II: electric boogaloo against a rancher named Cliven Bundy over cattle-grazing fees. As in Caracas, though, when colectivos arrive, individual rights depart. When Bundy attracted support from locals, the BLM ordered the quarrelsome corralled in what it labeled, with an almost adorable inability to dissimulate, “First Amendment Areas.” Even the BLM wasn’t dumb enough to try to fence off a “Second Amendment Area,” though, so the agency stood down from its own armed standoff when its actions appeared likely to set off a full-blown range war less than 80 miles from Las Vegas. Even in a region aswoon over the new Olivia Newton-John residency at the Flamingo, that might have attracted some press.

Cliven Bundy might well be dead if he had had as little access to the media as David Koresh. Exactly 21 years before the Bundy standoff, Koresh, along with his cult followers, the Branch Davidians, was awaiting final resolution of a dispute with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms over alleged modification of legally obtained firearms. The bureau would serve notice that its decision was unfavorable by attacking Koresh’s compound near Waco, laying siege for 51 days, and then attacking again, using armored vehicles to ram the buildings and fire hundreds of rounds of CS gas, both the projectiles and their poisonous payload being potentially lethal in enclosed areas. The climactic raid was ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno, who in turn had been given the green light by President Clinton.

Reno claimed her hand was forced because “babies were being beaten” but later admitted under oath that there was no evidence of this. Clinton said some of Koresh’s many brides were underage. Then why did his colectivo swarm the entire compound, knowing that its twitchy residents were paranoid and armed, instead of picking up the cult leader while he was out jogging?

The final onslaught was suffused with a comic style worthy of Allen: Voices on loudspeakers attached to the military vehicles proclaimed during the assault, “This is not an assault.” Just about everyone inside the compound, including 26 children and 50 adults, wound up dead. A few survivors were charged with aiding and abetting murder, which is one of the nutty jokes you tell when you’re the government and someone fails to die in your attack.

In response to previous inquiries about whether he was unlawfully turning semiautomatic weapons into automatic ones, Koresh had invited regulators to come inside and look. But “Local Kook Arrested over Firearms Modifications” was too wan a headline for the ATF, which instead envisioned a merry adventure it code-named “Showtime.” The month before the February 28, 1993, raid, 60 Minutes had aired a report painting a highly unflattering portrait of sexual harassment in the agency. Correspondent Mike Wallace later said that nearly all of the ATF agents he had interviewed believed Operation Showtime had been staged to refurbish the agency’s image, which is why a local TV station was invited to cover the fun. One cameraman wound up filming ATF agents who beat and kicked him when the raid went sour. That’s how things can go when you saddle up with government desperados and go riding into trouble with guns a-blazin’.

This summer we’ll observe the 40th anniversary of the only presidential resignation. Maybe someone will tote up the dead bodies resulting from Waco vs. Watergate, and the level of direct presidential authority known to be involved, and the levels of power abused, and remind me: Which of these brought greater shame to our republic?

– Mr. Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.

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