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A View From The Overlook: Marshal Reeves And Marshal Obama


Might President Obama learn something from the legendary 19th century lawman Bass Reeves?

Yale University environmental historian, Dr. Robin Winks, once termed America’s National Parks as “The greatest university in the world with hundreds of branch campuses.”

While Oxford and Cambridge might take issue in a tweedy British manner with Professor Winks’ hyperbole, his point is well taken: The units of the National Park System are indeed educational.

Our National Park University is particularly strong in the natural sciences, with extensive courses in geology, geography and biology, with most, (but not all) of the national biomes represented. The controversial field of climate change is increasingly represented.

The National Park University is also renowned for its in depth study of American History and Culture. Each historical or cultural unit celebrates a patch in the quilt of the American experience.

Some of these units mark the progress of democracy, with “campuses” ranging from Independence National Historical Park to Martin Luther King Jr. NHS (with a sidetrack to Manzanar NHS, to indicate that “progress” is not always upward and onward).

There are the military history “campuses”, which the NPS does quite well, ranging from Saratoga National Historical Park to the USS Arizona Memorial.

Western Justice, 19th Century Style

There is even one “campus” devoted to, among other things, Frontier law and order. That would be Fort Smith National Historic Site in the town of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Exhibits and rangers at the park relate the story of federal Judge Isaac Parker and the deputy U.S. Marshals who served his court; some of the most famous of the frontier lawmen, Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas,Chris Madsen, and, of course, possibly the greatest of the frontier U.S. Marshals, Bass Reeves himself.

Bass Reeves was born enslaved in 1838, and was raised around Paris, Texas, where he grew into a strapping 6-foot-2 inch, I84-pound young man with very definite ideas of his own worth. At the start of the Civil War he emancipated himself with a right to the jaw of his” owner,” and, as Huck Finn would say, “Lit a shuck for the territories” ahead of an avenging posse. The territory in question being the Oklahoma Indian territory allocated to the dispossessed Southeastern Indians of the “Six Civilized Tribes,” courtesy of Andrew Jackson.

Having experienced the “Trail of Tears” themselves, the Native Americans were not particularly disposed to returning Reeves to bondage. Instead, the Creeks and Seminoles provided Reeves with a graduate level course on Frontier Survival Skills.

Although he never learned to read and write, Reeves soon excelled in marksmanship (both rifle and pistol) hunting, tracking, horsemanship, escape, and evasion, as well as a working knowledge of a number of Indian languages. He may or may not have participated in the Battle of Honey Springs, and later homesteaded a successful farm, building an 8-room house for his wife and growing family (ten children).

Normally, that would be the happy end of the story, but the Oklahoma territory was not happy ending country in the 1870s. It was a cauldron of unhappy Indians and equally unhappy former Confederates and newly arriving bad men from all parts of the nation. To say that law and order had broken down was to imply there was some in the first place.

To bring some order to this chaos, President Grant appointed Judge Isaac Parker to the federal bench at Fort Smith, and an ex-confederate general, James Fagan as U.S. Marshal. Fagan was instructed to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals, “the best and the bravest.”

Understandably, deputy turnover was heavy due to casualties and the fact that the deputy marshals were often a mixed bag, morally speaking. Brave enough, many of them resembled the character Rooster Cogburn in the novel and films True Grit rather than the Lone Ranger. Some of the deputy U.S. Marshals had a certain ambivalence as to which side of the law they were on.

This was not the case with Marshal Bass Reeves. He was a model of Civil Service rectitude and could have given lessons to the Lone Ranger and even Tonto.

He served as deputy U.S. Marshal for some 32 years, captured 3,000 of some of most armed and dangerous criminals in America, and killed only 14. (Today’s ACLU might find “only 14” a tad excessive, and charged Reeves with police brutality, but those were desperate times.)

Indeed, Reeves worked hard to keep the casualty figures low. He was five inches taller than the average man of his era, and was known to be able to fight two men at the same time and win, thus being able to convince some to go peacefully. He was also a master of disguise and a keen student of human nature. One simple but effective trick was to use the prevailing racial stereotypes to his advantage. He would approach a wanted man disguised as an itinerant peddler and engage the suspect in conversation in the approved groveling and servile manner. He would then admit to being illiterate (which was true) and unable to read an important letter he had just received. Could the “boss” be so kind as to read him his letter? The “boss” was invariably helpful. Thus with eyes and both hands engaged, he did not notice that the “peddler” had produced badge, pistol, and handcuffs until it was way too late.

Reeves' reputation was so great that some bandits such as Belle Starr found the idea of being pursued by Reeves so demoralizing that they turned themselves in.

Bass Reeves died with his boots off of Bright’s disease in 1910, mourned even then in those Jim Crow times as a great pioneer lawman. He is buried near Muskogee, Oklahoma.

In 2002 the bridge over the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Smith was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge. He and other U.S. Marshals are eulogized daily at Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Last year, May 16, 2012, a bronze statue of Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves was unveiled at Fort Smith. President Obama was not present, which was unfortunate as National Historic Sites are very educational, just as Professor Winks said.

Of Drones And Justice

What could the President have learned from a 19th century lawman?

Well, it seems that the President has assumed the U.S. Marshal’s role of eliminating predators that intend to do us harm; terrorists and such.

On May 30, 2012, the always prissy and easily dumbstartled New York Times found itself shocked! -- shocked! -- that the person making “The Final Decision” on drone strike killings was none other than (gasp!) the President of the United States, Barack Obama!

According to other New York Times articles, President Obama meets from time to time in a briefing room with CIA advisors. The President is given a deck of cards. Each card has a name and photograph of an individual terrorist on one side of the card and a short biography and estimate of threat level of the gentleman on the other side. The President reads the cards, meditates, and selects certain individuals for…. um, well, transmutation by drone (Neighbors, we’ve GOT to come up with a good, sanitary euphemism for killing people!)

While this scenario is right out of a Hollywood screenplay, it is apparently true, (if you believe the New York Times) indeed, the Washington Post has joined the Times in liberal hand wringing.

So, how come? Maybe because these deadly matters are usually delegated to some faceless underling to carry out on some dark and foggy night. Rarely is a head of state directly involved.

President Obama has rather manfully and courageously stepped up to the plate and accepted full responsibility for each selection and, er…elimination.

Would Marshal Bass Reeves concur? Probably not.

You see, President Obama removes Marshal Reeve’s good friend, Judge Isaac Parker from the equation. The terrorist does not get his day in court, his defense attorney, exculpatory evidence and witnesses; in short, Due Process.

Secondly, the terrorist does not have the formal right of surrender, but remains a drone target until he/she is finally, um…extinguished.

In contrast, every man that Marshal Reeves killed had the chance to surrender right up to the last second before Reeves terminated him. When Reeves was ambushed by the vicious Brunter brothers, he quickly killed two of them, but even though adrenalin was roaring through his system, he was steely professional enough to stop firing when the surviving brother threw down his pistol and raised him hands.

Now it is true that the American moral philosopher Ambrose Bierce once remarked, “There are three kinds of homicides; accidental, justifiable, and praiseworthy.” While many would place the sudden death of terrorists in the third category, we can tweak the procedure to provide Due Process and still provide full employment for drone makers.

We can publicly and politely state that we have issued a warrant for an individual, listing his alleged crimes and requesting that they turn themselves into the nearest American Consul who would provide free transport (and X-ray for hidden explosives) to the United States and trial in federal court. It would not be a “show” trial; the defense would be ably mounted by the most fanatical volunteers of the ACLU, each eager for publicity. Some terrorists would certainly get off, but that’s the Justice system.

Bass Reeves himself asked if the vulgarities’ of the Justice system did not make him cynical. He responded:

“Maybe the law ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one we got, and without it, we got nothin’!"

Words to live by, Mr. President.

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