(This is the third in a series. Part I. Part 2.)
I met Ammon Bundy on January 9, inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I was in the Bunkhouse where the occupiers were preparing dinner, and he was there with his wife, Lisa, and their six beautiful children. Ammon saw my unfamiliar face among those gathering for the meal, and came over to me and introduced himself. He asked me questions about who I was and what my purpose was, but he didn’t seem suspicious, just friendly. We had a very brief conversation before others solicited his attention. I had the opportunity to observe him for a couple of hours that evening, but I talked to him only that one time.
Later, I spoke to his wife about the picture you see above, because another woman at the refuge thought it was a great picture and wanted Lisa to see it (they were looking at it on the tiny LCD screen on my camera, so they couldn’t see that it was actually a blurry picture and not very good at all).
But the Bundy with whom I interacted the most was one of Lisa and Ammon’s children; a delightful, happy, hopping, twirling little girl who liked my smile and eventually sat down near me with a whiteboard and a marker and tried and failed repeatedly to draw a heart. I did my best to instruct her, but her hearts always turned out to be lopsided ovals.
When Ammon came over to check on her and admire her artwork, she looked up at him and asked if he was coming home with them that night. He had to tell her he wasn’t. She looked sad but didn’t complain, she just drew another lopsided oval.
It was my understanding that Ammon Bundy’s wife and children were just visiting, not staying at the refuge. Ammon had come into the Bunkhouse earlier in the evening and talked to Melissa Cooper, who seemed to be in charge of the kitchen, and after he left she happily announced to everyone that Ammon would be returning with his family to join us for dinner.
When they did, they were greeted with warm adoration by those assembled. Ammon effortlessly played the role of a beloved leader, his wife was gracious and demure.
His children were absolutely wonderful. They were energetic and playful, even rambunctious, but, at the same time, well-behaved and attentive to others.
But as the hour grew late and the children grew tired the inevitable moment arrived when one of the children was brought to tears by some minor offense among siblings. Ammon was huddled with his soldiers, talking serious business, but when his daughter started to cry, his attention turned instantly to that crisis. Everyone waited patiently while he took his child into his arms, asked her what was wrong, then comforted and assured her until the tears stopped. The crisis resolved, he gave the child a hug and a kiss on the forehead, handed her off to Lisa, then returned to his serious soldiers.
Ammon Bundy, by all appearances, is a wonderful, loving father. He and his wife have created a beautiful family, something to be proud of, something to treasure, something not to take for granted.
A few hours ago, as I write this, Ammon Bundy was arrested by the FBI and Oregon State Police and charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers. More charges will follow, no doubt.
And now all I can think about is the little girl who draws lopsided ovals asking when her daddy is coming home, day after day, year after year. I wonder if she’ll ever be that same happy, hopping, twirling little girl again, or if that is something that has been taken from her forever.
The Ammon Bundy I observed was not a stupid man. In fact, I was impressed by his emotional intelligence and his leadership skills. In an environment dominated by unhealthy levels of testosterone and lots of overwrought paramilitary exuberance, he was singularly rational and calm. His authority was a quiet authority. He didn’t bark orders; rather he consulted with others, made decisions based on the input of others, and always said “please” and “thank you.”
As far as I could see, his authority was unchallenged, no matter the wide diversity of opinions, temperaments, and ideological viewpoints he confronted. He may have been the glue holding it all together.
Which makes him singularly responsible for everything that is happening right now, and for everything that might happen before this is over. He is the undisputed leader of this misguided adventure. He owns it.
From what I’m hearing tonight, most of the leaders and dominant personalities involved in the adventure have been neutralized. Ammon and Ryan Bundy are in custody. Creepy Ryan Payne and the execrable Jon Ritzheimer are in custody. Joseph O’Shaughnessy (“Captain O”) is in custody. That loudmouthed jackass Pete Santilli is in custody. And, of course, LaVoy Finicum is dead.
Which means, I suspect, that the refuge is now a place without clear leadership, where a couple of dozen very young men, who are no doubt very freaked out right now, are hunkered down with their AR-15s, waiting for the hammer to fall.
And the nearby town of Burns is infested with Three Percenters and other militia types. Who knows what they’re thinking tonight.
There’s only one person with the authority to call the game. I doubt they’ll listen to anybody else.
CNN is reporting that Ammon Bundy, through his lawyer, is asking the people remaining at the refuge to stand down.