Some men just want to watch the world burn. Others light “Strike Anywhere” matches and drop them on public land to “light up the whole country on fire” and destroy evidence of illegally slaughtered game—and 139 acres of public land in the process. Steven Dwight Hammond is the latter sort of man.
Hammond, 49, and his father, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., 76, were indicted on federal arson charges after a fire they set spread to land held in trust for the American people by the Bureau of Land Management. Arson on federal land carries a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence under the 1996 federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The Hammonds were remanded to federal prison in 2016.
Their incarceration inspired an armed 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Ammon Bundy received testimony that “the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds,” and called on like-minded civilians to bring guns and supplies to the Wildlife Refuge. Bundy and many of his followers are Mormons; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed its concern that the insurgents were claiming scriptural justification but insisted the occupation was “not a Church matter.”
The occupation closed schools, kept people from their jobs, and cost the taxpayers of Oregon upwards of $3.3 million. The Burns Pauite Tribe, on whose land the Wildlife Refuge stands, spent an additional $150,000 on law enforcement and assessment of artifacts.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, “Congress sought to ensure that anyone who maliciously damages United States’ property by fire will serve at least 5 years in prison. These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy.” The mandatory minimum sentences imposed upon the Hammonds were meant to deter actions that disregard the law, damage federal property, and endanger the lives of other Americans.
This week, the 45th president of the United States pardoned Steven and Dwight Hammond.
A statement issued on July 10th granted the Hammonds full clemency. There is no mention of Hammonds’ crimes—crimes that, were they committed by men of another race or religion, he would surely denounce as terrorism. Rather, the president calls the Hammonds’ sentences, which were handed down according to federal guidelines, “unjust.” The presidential statement does not address the sentencing guidelines; it condemns the “previous administration[‘s]” “overzealous” attempts to see those guidelines enforced.
That the current administration identifies federal sentencing guidelines as “unjust” simply because the Hammonds are “devoted family men” who allegedly enjoy support from their neighbors should give us pause—especially the day after the president nominated a justice to the Supreme Court of the United States who believes a sitting president cannot be indicted for criminal conduct.
Both this administration and this Supreme Court have proved all too willing, in recent months, to prioritize the individual entitlements and business interests of white Christian men over the welfare of children, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, American citizens who survive natural disasters, and the land on which we live. This pardon, intentionally or otherwise, sends a message to other militant white men: if you don’t like federal policies, “light up the whole country on fire” and trust this administration to ensure you don’t suffer the consequences of your actions.