Columnist David Martin

You're probably now familiar with the name Ammon Bundy, the "militia" leader whose team of "patriots" has holed up for the past week in rural Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Bundy and crew have simultaneously protested two circumstances. The first is specific: the overly harsh punishment of ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond, who set planned fires on their private property that accidentally spread to government-owned land. The second is general: a too-powerful federal presence that is, to many across Western states, making life intensely difficult for people whose livelihood is derived from the land.

As word spread that an armed contingent of self-styled militiamen took control of the wildlife refuge headquarters Saturday, newswires and social media lit up with loosely concocted accounts of events. If you didn't know better, you'd have thought a battalion of fighters, armed to the teeth, stormed a government building and were pining for a shootout with the law. Hence the sensationalized hashtag, #OregonUnderAttack.

Though that does make for a captivating story, the situation has been much less dramatic. The building is remote and was unmanned, and the posse is so hardcore that members took to Facebook recently to ask supporters to send "snacks." The siege of Fort Ticonderoga this was not.

While I can't say I approve of Team Bundy's tactics, I do find one insult hurled at them to be especially troubling: calling them "terrorists."

In the not-too-distant past, there seemed to be national consensus about who terrorists are and what actions earn that title. However, in the years since 9/11 the term's definition has become extremely muddied, and its subjective use now covers a wide rage of activities; civil disobedience in the case of the Bundy saga.

Words have immense power, and when misapplied they can have colossal — often negative — consequences. The ironic thing about the Oregon fuss is that there's a good chance it wouldn't be happening had the federal government not opportunistically misused the word "terrorist" when prosecuting Steven and Dwight Hammond.

In short, the two set strategic fires on their own land — a common practice by large landholders — one in 2001 and the other in 2006. They lost control of the first, and it spread onto roughly 139 acres of federal property, causing less than an estimated $100 of damage. The second took out a single acre of Uncle Sam's Oregon backyard.

Here's where things got dicey for the Hammonds.

The government hit them with a 19-count indictment, including charges under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which includes a mandatory five years in prison for anyone who "maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States."

After a lower court ruled more leniently against the Hammonds, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered them to serve full prison terms. Oh, and did I mention that at the time of the resentencing the Hammonds were scratching ends together to make payments on a civil settlement with the federal government? According to the National Review, nonpayment on the settlement would give "the government right of first refusal to purchase their property (neighboring the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) if they couldn't scrape together the money."

Do you see the scheme?

Yes, misusing the word "terrorist" can desensitize us to its true meaning — which is bad enough — but it can also lead, when shrewdly applied, to the legal theft of private property. Government and citizens alike should strive to use it in its proper context.

Contact David Allen Martin at and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.