By Alex Altman
January 7, 2016

When a group of gun-toting extremists seized a federal building in the remote high desert of southeast Oregon on Jan. 2, law enforcement responded with an approach that looked a lot like doing nothing. No uniformed FBI agents appeared in the snow, and Washington officials didn’t promise a swift resolution to the standoff.

Such restraint may seem strange, given the militia’s gripes about government tyranny. But the strategy was sound. “The key is to be very cautious,” says Tom Kubic, a former FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s 1996 showdown with the antigovernment Montana Freemen, which ended peacefully after 81 days.

Disastrous clashes like the 1992 shoot-out at Idaho’s Ruby Ridge and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, became rallying cries for the radical right and a source of inspiration to domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building killed 168. Officials didn’t want the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to become a similar touchstone.

Holed up in an empty bird sanctuary without hostages, the armed men posed no imminent threat and offered only vague demands to restore local control of federal land. They had arrived in Oregon to protest long prison sentences for two local ranchers convicted of arson. “Lives could be lost,” warned Ammon Bundy, the leader of the group and a son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher whose refusal to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines for grazing rights on federal land triggered a 2014 standoff between antigovernment extremists and the feds. The government retreated from that fight and has so far declined to prosecute the family.

Not everyone was thrilled with the feds’ approach, given the shows of force that have greeted urban protests in recent years. “One could not imagine a group of armed black men taking over an unoccupied federal building,” said Representative Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat. Former FBI agent Robin Montgomery, who ran the bureau’s critical incident response group, acknowledged the frustration. “It does embolden folks to see the government will not take aggressive action,” he says. “It’s a conundrum.”

–ALEX ALTMAN

This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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