THE standoff in rural Montana, now in its second week, has become a test of patience and public relations for law-enforcement officials. And if the pronouncements of close observers on all sides are any indication, the official response to the militant antigovernment "freemen" so far has been the right one.
Militia group leaders along with those working to expose such groups, local political leaders, and relatives and neighbors of the freemen all say the low-profile, wait-them-out strategy adopted by the US Justice Department and the FBI is the best way to avoid a violent outcome.
"The way it's being handled is, I believe, proper," said John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, in comments over the weekend. Mr. Trochmann has told militias from other states to stay away.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department have been especially sensitive in this standoff in part because it comes in the wake of the fatal raid on the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in 1993, and a shootout with white separatists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992.
Since last October, a new centralized command structure has been in order at the FBI. So decisions in the Montana standoff are being cleared by Washington, and stricter rules on the use of deadly force by agents are in place.
Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., author of "Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat," observes of the federal action against the freemen in Montana that "the FBI is handling it in good fashion."
The same feeling apparently holds for the people of Garfield County, some of whom were earlier ready to take matters into their own hands and many of whom have since signed a petition urging the freemen (now thought to number about two dozen, including some women and children) to come out peacefully.
"If they move in on them too fast, there's going to be bloodshed," said rancher Claude Saylor. "I can guarantee that."
While militia leaders may have, in the past, used rhetoric just as inflammatory as the freemen, some of them now are distancing themselves from the freeman, charged with threatening judges and law-enforcement officials and carrying out illegal financial schemes totaling nearly $2 million.
"I categorically do not agree with those tactics," says John Parsons of the Tri-State Militia, based in Tulsa, Okla. What's more, says Mr. Parsons, "These people should come out, turn themselves over to the authorities, and go through the courts." The freemen reject the authority of the established legal system.
But the militia don't follow one leader. Norman Olson, commander of the Northern Michigan Militia, said Sunday he was organizing a convoy to take supplies to the ranch.
Experts say past encounters between radical groups and law-enforcement agencies, encounters that have ended violently, are much on the mind of FBI officials. These include not only the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents, but also earlier clashes with the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985 and Indian-rights activists at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1975.
There are clear differences between the present situation and earlier episodes that ended violently. In Montana, federal agents are giving more clout to negotiators than they have in the past. (Montana State Sen. Sharon Estrada has been suggested as a possible go-between.)
RANDY WEAVER'S property at Ruby Ridge was hilly and forested, making it difficult to watch movements from a safe distance. The cluster of buildings at "Justus Township," as the freemen call their place, is on wide-open, flat land. And unlike the situation with the followers of David Koresh at Waco, there is not the risk that some members (especially children) may have been sexually abused or taught to commit suicide.
"The Department of Justice and the FBI and those working with them have worked very hard this time not to be seen as an army about to descend on women and children," said William Webster, former director of the FBI, over the weekend. "You have to make the judgment - are we going to risk substantial loss of life to some potentially innocent people simply for the sake of ending a problem that is not based on violence itself."
Following Ruby Ridge, internal and congressional investigations found serious problems involving the use of deadly force as an appropriate response. It was concluded that federal agents in that case exceeded constitutional bounds as well as the FBI's own standard policy.
"You want to avoid the escalation that occurs in these situations, and you can in fact reach some of these people by assuming a nonaggressive stand at the outset and then persuade them that they have somehow misinterpreted the moment or have nothing to fear in the current confrontation," says Chip Berlet, who analyzes radical groups for Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.