The end of the 81-day siege of the "freemen" compound on the wind-whipped plains near Jordan, Mont., underscores two important points.
First, the FBI learned some key lessons from its earlier, tragic confrontations with extremists at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Those showdowns ended in bloodshed, and in sharp criticism of the federal law enforcers.
The impression left was of federal agents with itchy trigger fingers. Among many Americans, sympathies shifted to the holed-up white supremacists or religious cultists. The deep problems presented by their rejection of established law were forgotten in the flames and gunfire.
The freemen standoff had an utterly different denouement. The FBI and other involved officials used every means at hand to negotiate with the occupants of "Justus Township" and to avoid the use of force. Mediators with a grasp of the freemen perspective tried to help - but found, to their disgust, that many in the besieged group were primarily concerned with dodging the law. Any reservoir of public sympathy began to drain away from the freemen.
That was the second key point. The long dialogue with the freemen exposed the bankruptcy of their ideas - largely a mish-mash of antigovernment resentments, spiked by fraudulent legal and financial schemes. Down-and-out believers were duped into hoping they'd found a way out of debt and ruin. The bogus freemen creed will get added exposure in the bona fide legal proceedings now under way.
The FBI team, through some very tense moments, kept an admirable reserve of patience. They may have to draw on it again in dealing with people led by failure, fear, and hatred to reject reason and duly constituted authority.