by Leon Felkins
"To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making."
-- Otto von Bismarck (the "Iron Chancellor" of 19th century Germany)
A few days ago I purchased the video documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement and viewed it shortly after it arrived. While I anticipated that the film would have some unpleasant scenes, I was not prepared for the devastating impact it had on my mental well being. It left me in a state of depression comparable to that I would experience if a very close friend or relative had died. I wanted to know more, especially anything on the situation of the survivors about which the movie briefly mentions that they are now serving 40 year sentences in a federal lock-up. As usual, I went looking on the internet.
As I was searching the many sites and newsgroups that discuss the Waco tragedy, I stumbled on a mention of a current event that has the potential of becoming a similar confrontation between the federal law enforcement agencies and defiant citizens. That event is the case of the Sweeneys and their property which the federal government (the RTC) has foreclosed on. While I take a break on my follow up on the Waco tragedy, I would like to document what I have found on the Sweeney affair -- which is what I will do in this essay.
The government has decreed that it now owns the Sweeney's home and acreage based on an RTC foreclosure resulting from the Sweeney's allegedly not paying back a $1.6 million loan and has ordered them to move out. The Sweeney's say they aren't going anywhere. They say -- which I quote from their web page:
"We won a $4 million dollar state court judgment against the Massachusetts bank and its subsidiaries because it committed 'Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices' against us. The 45 page state court judgment paid back our loan in full and awarded us further damages because of the harm we had suffered from the bank's unfair actions. Incredibly, the bank lawyer, John Hanify of Hanify & King secretly removed this judgment from the state court and concealed it in his own law office for 28 days, never notifying our lawyers that we had won the case."
A judge has given federal marshals permission to seize the property. The Sweeneys have now cordoned off their property with yellow tape and blocked entrances with heavy equipment. They also have asked volunteers to help conduct "peaceful patrols'' of their property and donate supplies (if you want to help, call 508-468-1536, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or see their web page, for more details).
For some reason, the Federal Government takes the "imperial" attitude in its disputes with the citizens. When a citizen has the courage to say something to it, like, "Excuse me, but I think you are standing on my foot", their response will likely be in the tone of "You talking to me?". Those of us who have had disputes with the IRS over taxes are extremely frustrated by their typical response of something like, "You owe $3,246.92. Pay it or we'll take it, using whatever force is necessary. And while you're delaying the process by insisting on an explanation, your bill is increasing -- peon!". One of the best examples of this attitude is the government activity of Asset Forfeiture and Seizure in which the citizen is burdened with the problem of proving that the government had no right to steal their property.
This "stern parent" attitude, for whatever good it might be, has some negative consequences. Some citizens get their hackles up over the imposition of such a relationship between government and citizen, citizens that still cling to the old fashioned ideas (i.e., as promoted by the Constitution) that these government agents are "civil servants" and should be treated thusly. It is obvious that these two attitudes are worlds apart and can be a source of real conflict.
And there are some losses to the government as well as the citizens. Niki Deutchman, the jury forewoman for the recent Terry Nichols trial, expressed frustration in dealing with the FBI over the insistence by them that the jurors simply take the FBI's word rather than insisting on hard evidence. She said, for example, "I think maybe, it's time for the government to be more respectful, and to be more aware of each of us, as people, with the inalienable rights, equal rights, and not with the attitude of -- we know, and you don't."
So, given this attitude of "We don't even have to explain let alone negotiate", it is not surprising that a minor dispute quickly elevates to the armed conflict, million dollar a day, tank and helicopters a buzzing, siege that we witnessed at Waco and Ruby Ridge.
I will not go into further details on the Sweeney situation as extensive details on the background and current status of the their dispute is available on their web page. Here are a few on-line news reports: "Militias rally to sieged couple", (London Times, 6/15/97); "Militia Takes up Blue-Blood's Cause" (Associated Press, 1/8/98); and "Mass. couple in standoff with feds" (UPI 1/5/98). The internet news groups are also giving the event extensive coverage, a typical example being, "Sweeney Siege Turns Hot", posted 1/4/98 in several of the "alt.politics" groups.
But the bigger issue is what should be done in the name of enforcing court orders and such. It is not a simple issue, in my opinion. Our society has drifted away from the concept of a society based on "the rule of law" in recent years. More often legal cases are now settled on whether the accused is pretty, is "sorry", is a "nice" person, or is in the right political party than on the strict interpretation of the law. The problems that are developing from this approach are obvious and I won't bore you with the details.
On the other hand, strict enforcement of the letter of the law has its problems. Apparently, the marshals have been provided with a legal document that tells them to seize the property. The "sausage makings" that went into that legal order are really not the concern of the marshals. They could keep their lives simple if they would just carry out their orders.
But how? What do you do if you order someone to vacate -- in the name of the law -- and they tell you to go pound sand? What is the next step? Wait it out? Subterfuge? Force? All have been tried at one time or another. A strong case can be made that force should be escalated to whatever is necessary to take the property. What do you think?
Another issue is cost. How much do we as taxpayers paying the bill want to spend on collecting the $1.6 million that the Sweeneys are accused of owing? Now if it were private business they would try to minimize their losses and accordingly would have written it off long ago. (Someone recently "borrowed" my credit card and charged $700 to it. The credit card company declined to investigate because they said it would cost far more than to just pay me the $700 and close the case.) But the government has no feel for the concept of cost. They will spend $100 million to retrieve $1 million and never realize that there is anything wrong with that. It is said that they spent $129 million trying to apprehend the perpetrators of the $3 million Brinks heist (see my Political Almanac page for January 17). In another example, they wasted a few thousand lives retrieving one Manuel Noriega so that he could spend his declining years watching TV and enjoying the Gringo's hospitality and health care.
Supposedly the government has already spent several times the value of the debt the Sweeneys allegedly owe and they haven't even launched their first tank or black helicopter yet! (Once they go into that mode, the cost goes into the millions of dollars per day).
So the question is, as a taxpayer -- ultimately paying the bill -- do you think this case should proceed -- in the strict interpretation of the law -- until it is resolved? Or would it be a good idea to close down the pursuit of legal remedies when the cost gets too high?
And finally, there is politics. We have the Sweeneys seeking relief by stirring up the Congress-critters. As you can see on the Sweeney's web page, they have contacted just about everyone in Washington that could help them in any way. Is it a good idea to have the Congress, the President, or other high-level politicians intervening in problems of law enforcement? I think not. We already have Congress dictating who gets what research awards and other juicy pork projects, bypassing the R & D agencies of the government, the military, the highway departments, and etc. If Congress must do anything (which we would be better off if they didn't), let it be screwing up the laws and leave the running of the country alone.
When the problem they are trying to resolve is further clouded by the fact that they helped to create the mess and possibly illegally so, it gets real messy trying to enforce peace and settlement by brute force. It is a political mine field. In the pursuit of trying to force some citizen to obey a court order, they may experience some severe political casualties by what is known in the military as "friendly fire". In other words, what may happen here is the very shrewd Sweeneys may enjoy the happy situation of watching the politicians, before this is over, going after each other's asses rather than the Sweeney's. I can't think of a better ending to this fiasco.
More of Leon Felkins' essays may be found on his home page, A Rational Life.