On Aug. 21, 1992, a team of U.S. marshals set out to arrest Randy Weaver, a reclusive white supremacist who the previous year had refused to appear in court to face a federal weapons charge. Instead, Weaver and his family had holed up in their cabin in a remote part of northern Idaho dubbed Ruby Ridge.
Alerted by barking dogs to the presence of the marshals, Weaver, his 14-year-old-son Sammy, and a family friend, Kevin Harris, left their cabin to investigate. They blundered into the party of marshals and a confused firefight erupted that killed both Sammy Weaver and one of the marshals, Bill Degan.
The firefight heralded the beginning of a long standoff that would bring yet more loss of life. The FBI deployed its Hostage Rescue Team, with loose rules of engagement that subsequent investigations would characterize as essentially a "shoot on sight" policy. Early in the standoff, an FBI sniper shortly opened fire on the family, hitting Randy Weaver in the back and killing his wife, Vicki. The same bullet that killed Vicki injured Kevin Harris.
Ultimately, it would take 11 days to resolve the standoff using third-party negotiators. In the subsequent criminal trial, a jury acquitted Kevin Harris of all charges and Randy Weaver of all charges except the original failure to appear count. The government later paid a $3.1 million settlement to the Weaver family to settle a wrongful death suit.
The Ruby Ridge standoff resulted in a blizzard of internal agency, Department of Justice, and Congressional investigations, as well as considerable media scrutiny. The general consensus was highly critical of the ATF, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the FBI. All three law enforcement agencies were found to have made significant errors of intelligence assessment, judgment and procedure.
But the standoff had other effects as well, not least of which was that it greatly agitated white supremacists in the United States, who viewed the Weaver families as martyrs. On its own, it is possible that the standoff might have produced only short-lived or limited effects. Unfortunately, a deadly standoff in Waco, Texas, followed Ruby Ridge less than a year later, this time involving a fringe religious group, the Branch Davidians. Once more, the ATF and the FBI made serious errors. The 51-day Waco standoff resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and around 80 Davidians, including many children.
The Branch Davidian standoff greatly amplified the effects of the earlier standoff at Ruby Ridge. While Randy Weaver was a white supremacist and not necessarily a sympathetic figure, the Davidians included adherents of many races and backgrounds, as well as their children. Thus many who might not have been motivated by Ruby Ridge alone could use Ruby Ridge and Waco together as a rallying cry without fear of being associated with white supremacy.
In fact, the two standoffs combined to galvanize the extreme right in the United States. Along with the election of Bill Clinton and the passage of controversial gun control measures, the standoffs emerged as key factors in a major resurgence of the extreme right in the mid-1990s, a resurgence that resulted in the Oklahoma City bombing and many other acts of violence.
Today, two decades later, the United States is more than three years into another resurgence of right-wing extremism, which has produced its own string of shocking and violent incidents by white supremacists and anti-government extremists.
And yet even now the ghosts of Ruby Ridge linger. On Aug. 16, two linked shootouts occurred in LaPlace, Louisiana, that resulted in two sheriff's deputies killed and two more injured. One of the suspects in those shootings, Terry Lyn Smith, had a social networking profile on which he listed as "heroes" three people: Alex Jones, the conspiratorial anti-government radio talk show host; David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians; and Randy Weaver.
If the standoffs have had lasting negative effects, one positive impact of Ruby Ridge and Waco was finally to compel a reform in the way that law enforcement agencies — federal, state, and local — handled such incidents. After Ruby Ridge and Waco, there has been more patience, more willingness to let negotiators do their work, more of an effort to avoid bloodshed.
In 1996, for example, the FBI resolved an 81-day standoff with the Montana Freemen with no bloodshed. During a few incidents, some people even complained that the government was too afraid to act, that it had developed "Weaver fever." But no one can complain that fewer lives have been lost.
With Ruby Ridge and Waco now increasingly distant, one can only hope that these positive ghosts, too, will linger: that, as a nation, the harsh lessons of Ruby Ridge and Waco do not fade from our memory and that we do not repeat the mistakes made back then. Extremist movements cause enough violence and suffering all by themselves.
Mark Pitcavage is Director of Investigative Research at the Anti-Defamation League.