ON JANUARY 2, 2016, Ammon Bundy and a few dozen armed militiamen seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Their aim, they said, was to protest the imprisonment of Steven and Dwight Hammond, two ranchers convicted of committing arson on public property. More broadly, they had a host of complaints about the federal government's ownership and management of Western lands.
But Anthony McCann sees a kaleidoscope of deeper meanings in the 2016 standoff--crises of work, race, manhood, and history swirling together in a "whacked out American story." McCann, a professional poet, admits that his natural allegiances going in to the story were more with the liberal-progressive side, although he doesn't seem the type even before diving into the story to get quite as radical as those who crudely mocked the Malheur militants (by, for example, mailing them plastic penises) or wished them grievous harm. In Shadowlands, his nuanced account of the occupation and its aftermath, he treats the occupiers and the loose "patriot" movement surrounding them mostly fairly. Meanwhile, the feds' behavior frequently appalls him.
An occupier offers one of the story's blunter morals when he tells McCann, "The government might kill you if you tried to form a commune." McCann concedes the point. The "experience at Malheur," he writes, "seemed to bear this out."
THE GOVERNMENT'S CASE against the Hammonds revolved around two occasions when the ranchers set fires on public lands. The Hammonds insist that they set the first fire to control invasive plants and the second to keep a wildfire from reaching their property. The government insisted the first fire was actually meant to hide evidence of illegal deer hunting and that the Hammonds had a record of threatening federal agents. Many Westerners believed the Hammonds, and a judge deliberately gave them a shorter sentence than the legal mandatory minimum. They were already out of jail when an appeals court overturned that decision, ordering them back into custody to serve additional time.
The Hammonds would eventually receive a presidential pardon from Trump (something he has only done 10 times, nearly always for people seen as key parts of his political and ideological coalitions). But that didn't happen until July 2018. As the ranchers returned to their cells in late 2015, many militia types gathered in the nearby town of Burns, Oregon, to protest the revised sentence. They were angry, but...