The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is surely one of the strangest media events of the century. A group of armed men have taken over a wildlife refuge, claiming the federal land for local residents. But the gunmen claiming the land are not local residents. They come from several states away, and they are not exactly being welcomed by local residents, who generally support the wildlife refuge.
The gunmen claim they are "patriots" and demand a return of the land to "rightful" owners under "constitutional" law. None of those adjectives fairly describe these actions. Patriots (from the Latin patria, meaning "native country") support their government; they don't try to overthrow the rule of law by threats of violence. These are the actions of insurrectionists, not patriots.
Rightful ownership of the refuge has been established for generations. The land is federal land, owned by the federal government in trust for the public. A strong argument can be made that many western states have far too much land locked away by the federal government, but the place for that argument is in a court of law or in Congress, not behind the muzzle of a gun. As for constitutionality, nothing in the Constitution gives title to land to people who simply want it; title to land is established by purchase or inheritance or, in some instances, by the government's right to eminent domain — obtaining title to the land through legal due process and payment of fair market value to the owner. In the 19th century, the federal government owned all the land of western territories and gave away parcels of land to homesteaders willing to live on it and improve it. If ownership is disputed, the courts are capable of sorting out rightful ownership.
This confrontation between gun-toting insurrectionists and so-far patient and cautious federal agents and Department of the Interior employees is as frightening as it is surreal. Overheated language in protests and civil disobedience — cries to "take back" the city or the state or the country and shouts of "Whose university? Our university!" — could devolve into armed confrontation. A victory by the insurrectionists in Oregon could encourage other aggrieved "patriots" to try to overthrow the courts and the government of a city, state or nation.
For this reason, the federal agents cautiously watching the actions at Malheur Wildlife Refuge cannot afford to be too patient or too lenient.