Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ruby Ridge (American Experience)

One of the more dank and squalid episodes in recent history, the debacle at Ruby Ridge isn't sufficiently illuminating to epitomize anything.  Similarly, the story is awful enough, certainly arousing terror and pity, but lacks anything ennobling -- it's not exactly a tragedy, rather a comedy of horrific errors.  Standing alone, the siege at Ruby Ridge means nothing -- to be meaningful, the story must be interpreted retrospectively in the light of the burning propane and infants at Waco and, prospectively, in its aspect as the forebear of the various alt.right conspiracy theories that now lurk in the fever swamps of the internet.  The shootings at Ruby Ridge are pre-Internet, but the story, certainly, represents a meme of a sort -- a clash between individual rights as idiosyncratically interpreted by the survivalist movement and the blunt instrument of the government.  The problem is that just about everything associated with the Ruby Ridge siege seems contested, a terrain where official lies intersect with paranoid conspiracy theory in the context of contorted post hoc apologetics on both sides.

The survivors control the story.  One of Randy Weaver's daughters survived the siege sufficiently intact mentally, and physically undamaged, to tell the story.  She is now an attractive, raven-haired woman in her late forties, highly photogenic and articulate and, so, despite its somewhat romantic coloring, her story predominates in the one-hour documentary on the subject aired as part of PBS' American Experience series.  As told by the daughter, the Weavers were an Iowa family that sought refuge in Idaho fearing that the end of the world was imminent.  This is common enough, I suppose in general terms, and a result of reading the Bible too closely and with insufficient skepticism.  The family consisting of Randy Weaver, now the dean of alt.right conspiracy theorists (apparently too crazy or too uncompromising to appear on PBS, which is, of course, government funded through the National Endowment of the Arts), his wife, and three children acquired a tract of picturesque mountain land 15 miles south of the Canadian border where they built a house with their own hands.  A few miles away, the White Supremicists of the Aryan Nation owned a compound frequented by Nazis, skinheads and religious lunatics under the pastoral tutelage of an old man always shown in the film wearing a neat brown suit -- even when the skinheads are burning books and crosses, this guy appears dressed for business as an accountant or third-rate insurance salesman.  The documentary is evasive about the relationship between the Weavers and the Nazis -- but, certainly, there was perceived to be some kind of connection and, at least, in the minds of the FBI the Weavers were neo-Nazi religious fanatics armed and very probably dangerous (Randy Weaver had served as a Green Beret in Vietnam).  The documentary is also evasive about the federal offense that triggered the stand-off -- the film suggests that Weaver was entrapped by FBI agents who placed an order for sawed-off shotguns and, then, served a warrant for his arrest when he obligingly delivered the firearms.  Weaver repelled the federal marshals who, then, set up a cordon around his house.  One thing led to another and there was a shoot-out, apparently, an incident about which nothing reliable is known.  In the course of confused confrontation, Weaver's 14 year old son and one of the federal deputies were killed.  The topography of this calamity is unclear and both sides gave diametrically opposed accounts as to who initiated the shooting.  It is true that the FBI determined that that they had, more or less, accidentally gunned-down Weaver's son -- how this was discovered is obscure in the film.  As is the case with law enforcement, a branch of government often characterized by reckless morons and sadists, the FBI doubled-down on their efforts to massacre the Weavers, attacked the compound and managed to wound both Randy Weaver and an adult accomplice; more problematically, they blew off the head of Weaver's wife, spraying her daughter, the chief witness portrayed in the show, with fragments of her mother's skull.  Of course, no one in the FBI will admit pulling trigger and the FBI spokesmen are elusive about how this happened -- they acknowledge something happened but can't explain what or why.  (This reticence is understandable in light of the fact that the government paid 3.1 million dollars to the Weavers to avoid a wrongful death trial; the criminal case brought against Randy Weaver and his accomplice resulted in an acquittal.)  Accordingly, the film presents a peculiarly obtuse version of the siege as explained by government witnesses -- someone shot the Weavers and, in fact, killed Mrs. Weaver but no one really can explain how this happened.  The story has no climax and no happy ending.  After ten or eleven days, presumably demoralized by the mangled body of Mrs. Weaver rotting on the floor, Randy Weaver surrendered.  His surrender was facilitated by another crazy, Bo Gritz, a far-right Green Beret who periodically advances his lunatic theories in books and internet postings.  (He's like a hill-billy version of Jesse Ventura).  During the siege, the FBI repeatedly told Mrs. Weaver to come out and bring her kids down to the government camp to have bacon and waffles.  The FBI claims that they didn't know that they had shot off the woman's head.  Of course, the Weavers interpreted this as merciless taunting.  Based on the FBI's desire to revenge the federal marshal killed in the shoot-out, I am disinclined to believe the government's apology:  "We didn't know that the poor woman was dead." 

The show is morbid and unpleasant although compulsively watchable.  You can't tear your eyes off the train wreck on screen.  There isn't a lot of useful video -- we see some spooky FBI surveillance images of the Weaver compound:  lots of dogs, mud, children, men wandering around carrying long-guns.  There are dramatic pictures of the Nazis with full regalia, although their role in the whole siege is unclear:  the daughters claim may be summarized as "we were religious nuts, not political lunatics."  We see some shrieking confrontations between wild-eyed ex-biker mamas affiliated with the Nazis and impassive brutish-looking cops -- it's the kind of encounter in which you fervently hope the worst for both sides.  Mrs. Weaver had beautiful handwriting and it is incongruous to see her letters addressed in flowing cursive "to the servants of the Queen of Babylon."  While being hauled away, badly wounded Randy Weaver says:  "If I'd known they were gonna take my bride off this mountain in a body bag, I would have let old Ned cut in on her at the dance --" vaguely recalling some erotic adventures from many years earlier in Iowa.  PBS doesn't know what to make of the material -- scrambling around in the filth, looking for a moral, they end up with cautionary warning about treating people as terrorists just because they look and act different.  But this begs the real question as to whether the Weavers were terrorists of some stripe -- there's no question about the terroristic actions of the Federal government. 

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