Burgert in ‘Real Life’

By Kellyn Brown

Last week following the Boston Bruins’ win over the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals, Canadians took to the streets to riot away their disappointment. The images were surreal: smashed storefronts, burned cop cars, dozens of injuries. I mentioned, mostly joking, on my Twitter account: “I always thought Canadians were pacifists,” to which Beacon business columnist Mark Riffey responded, “Ergo, all Montanans are unabombers?” Point taken.

Montana owns its share of stereotypes, and they’ve been hammered home lately. And there perhaps is no better example of that than the coverage of the manhunt for David Burgert. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news, Burgert is the former militia leader (or terrorist) who led an anti-government movement in Northwest Montana called Project 7. Authorities said the group planned to kill local officials and overthrow the federal government. Burgert was arrested in 2002 on weapons charges and spent eight years in prison. As I write this, he has been on the run since shooting at Missoula deputies on June 12.

Burgert has been described as a sociopath and survivalist capable of living in remote areas for long stretches of time. The 47-year-old parolee has also been called a “real-life Rambo.” That’s right, the Daily Mail, reporting all the way from London, described Burgert’s ability to escape in the woods as “reminiscent of the film ‘First Blood.’”

The newspaper continued: “Police fear the scenario could now play out like the Sylvester Stallone film action film in which Vietnam veteran John Rambo falls foul of local law enforcement and leads them on a pursuit through rugged mountain terrain.” Yes, the story includes a photo of actor Sylvester Stallone.

Comparing Burgert to Rambo is an absurd leap in search of a narrative. In “First Blood,” Rambo was harassed by an overzealous, small-town sheriff (the type that might say, “we don’t like your kind around here,”); arrested for vagrancy; and then abused repeatedly in jail before he escaped.

Besides likening a fictional Rambo to the seriousness of the “real-life” search for Burgert, the other problem with the coverage is the eagerness at which circumstances surrounding this situation are described as a trend. This area is “fertile ground for extremist groups” and Burgert is part of a “new anti-government strain.”

I’m not sure what’s so new about all this. Before moving to Montana more than a dozen years ago, I lived in Spokane, Wash. Each summer, up the road in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, former Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler held an annual parade. Unfortunately, none of this is new, but it also isn’t exclusive to the area either.

There are so-called extremist and anti-government groups, many well-trained in survival skills, spread out across the country and I doubt their members are compared to Rambo. They may not have as much wilderness to roam as we do. But I wonder what impression is left on those reading these stories about Montana outlaws.

You just hope those elsewhere know we live in a modern, law-abiding society and are welcoming to visitors. But it’s difficult to drive that point home when Ted Kaczynski, the man who sent mail bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others before being arrested in 1996 in a remote cabin in Lincoln, was also in the news again.

The Unabomber’s items, including his infamous manifesto, were ordered by a judge to be auctioned off to benefit he victims’ families. They sold for than $232,000. The story ran everywhere, serving as more fodder for Montana as a stereotype.

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