To Defeat White Militiamen, Be Beowulf

FBI Special Agent Bretzing describing arrests

FBI Special Agent Bretzing describing arrests

Tuesday

I should never have doubted the Beowulf Way. Here I was, chafing at the how the white militia group at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge appeared to be intimidating federal officials and local officials, only to see the FBI handle them the way Beowulf handles Grendel. They also enjoyed the same success.

What occurred was laid out in a Salon headline:

Oregon militiamen fell right into the feds’ trap: Sorry, liberals, the government was right to wait before taking them out

 Author Amanda Marcotte recounts what happened:

The minute that self-appointed militiamen stepped onto the property of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, liberals started worrying that these folks would not be held accountable for their criminal behavior. The group, led by the two sons of right wing radical Cliven Bundy, took over the refuge, demanding that the taxpayers turn over federal lands so that folks like the Bundys and other farmers, miners and other private interests could profit handsomely off the land without having to pay for it. It’s clear that the militiamen expected the feds to rush the compound, causing a firefight in which they could be martyrs for the right wing cause of giving white conservatives a lot of free money while leaving the rest of us out to dry.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the federal government seemingly didn’t do anything for many weeks, letting these guys get comfortable at the refuge and even go back and forth from it for grocery-shopping, media events, and whatever else their hearts desired. Only one occupier was arrested, for using a stolen vehicle to drive to the store.

This lack of interest in having a big ol’ shootout right away on government property didn’t just disappoint the militiamen. A number of liberal commentators were miffed that the feds seemed to be twiddling their thumbs, often arguing that if the occupiers were people of color, the shootout would have happened already. The criticism had some merit, of course, but the solution for such a double standard isn’t to have more shootouts, so much as it’s an argument against the quick-to-violence reactions law enforcement regrettably has when dealing with non-white suspects.

The occupation was expensive and disruptive, of course, leading the Democratic governor of Oregon to ask for the feds to step in. This only reinforced liberal suspicions that the feds were blowing this off and were not going to hold these yahoos accountable for their actions.

Well, those fears were proven most dramatically wrong Tuesday afternoon, when law enforcement confronted the militiamen on the open highway. A shootout did ensue, which was expected since these folks all have ridiculous martyr fantasies, and one person was killed. So far, there have been eight arrests, and the leaders of this fiasco are in custody. Now the feds have closed in on the refuge, closing roads and access. Without leadership or access to the outside, it won’t be surprising if the rest of the people inside just give up soon enough.

This is in fact what then happened, as Marcotte foresaw. In her article she observes that

the feds were right and the worrywarts were wrong. Waiting this out a bit, while unfortunately disruptive to the area, ended up being a far more sensible way of dealing with this than trying to raid the wildlife refuge.

As an added bonus, the FBI also picked up Cliven Bundy, who two years ago led his own armed confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado. Armed militiamen had flocked to his ranch after the BLM seized Bundy cattle that were illegally grazing on federal land.

So how is this a Beowulfian approach?

Let’s talk first about the monster. In a number of posts (here and here, for instance), as well as in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, I identity Grendel as the spirit of jealous resentment that tears a society apart from within. The Bundys and their followers represent a particular form of white resentment that has all but taken over the Republican Party and is fueling the candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The worst instance of a local Grendel has been Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people and injured 600 when he blew up an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. A related rage burns within those who flocked to support the Bundys.

To successfully defeat Grendel requires a cool head and an iron grip. I’m not making a bad pun with Beowulf hand wrestling the monster because “grip” is a powerful metaphor for the mental qualities that are called for. (That’s why we say “get a grip.”) Hacking the monster with a passionate sword, by contrast, does not succeed since doing so just feeds his power. As Marcotte notes, if the feds had gone into the Malheur refuge with guns blazing, they would made martyrs out of the occupiers and fed the forces of resentment nationwide. The Beowulf poet understands this well:

Time and again,
Beowulf’s warriors worked to defend
their lord’s life, laying about them
as best they could, with their ancestral blades.
Stalwart in action, they kept striking out
on every side, seeking to cut
straight to the soul. When they joined the struggle
there was something they could not have known at the time,
that no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art
could ever damage their demon opponent.
He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
of every weapon.

Beowulf, by contrast, turns the battle into a mano a mano contest of wills. He gives us a foretaste of his approach when he faces down a jealous warrior upon first entering Hogarth’s hall. Unferth, furious at seeing praises showered upon someone he regards as a young upstart, lights into Beowulf, only to be silenced by his eloquence and his confidence.

Later in the poem we are informed that Beowulf is not one who flies off the handle. The Danish king Hrothgar describes him as follows:

In all things you are even-tempered,
prudent and resolute. So I stand firm by the promise of friendship
we exchanged before. Forever you will be
your people’s mainstay and your own warriors’
helping hand.

The poet offers up a similar recommendation:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers.

I share these passages because they describe well the approach of the feds at Malheur. They appear to have learned their lesson from the 1990s when they acted very differently, taking a  sword-hacking approach at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Those incidents only served to fuel the militia movement.

In the poem, it is significant that Beowulf doesn’t strike first but let’s the monster come to him: In the lead-up to their struggle, Grendel enters the hall picturing how he will “rip life from limb and devour [the warrior], feed on their flesh.” He encounters something very different:

Mighty and canny,
Hygelac’s kinsman was keenly watching
for the first move the monster would make.

Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed, he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero’s
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth.

Note that Beowulf doesn’t then kill Grendel. Rather Grendel, facing such resolution, essentially falls apart, pulling himself free of his arm. I admit that it is a bad pun to say that Beowulf disarms him.

The battle isn’t a bad description of what occurred in Oregon. The Malheur occupiers came in breathing fire but appeared, when all was said and done, to be a rather pathetic set of lost souls. Their final act is captured by Grendel’s fate:

His fatal departure
was regretted by no one who had witnessed his trail,
the ignominious marks of his flight
where he’d skulked away, exhausted in spirit
and beaten in battle, bloodying the path,
hauling his doom to the demons’ mere.

This approach to conflict can’t be overemphasized. At a time when GOP presidential candidates want us to confront Iran (Rubio) and bomb ISIS so that the sand glows (Ted Cruz), Beowulf reminds us that this will only increase murderous resentment. Better, as Teddy Roosevelt puts it, to walk softly while carrying a big stick.

Better to access our inner Beowulf.

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