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Column: Plainfield Can Forgive Elaine Brown

When Ed and Elaine Brown holed up against federal agents in their fortress-like home near the end of a secluded back road in Plainfield seven years ago, they weren’t the only ones who came under siege. Their actions held an entire town hostage.

After the Browns stopped paying their federal income taxes in 1996 for political and philosophical reasons, they started accumulating large penalties. When they were declared guilty of tax evasion in early 2007, they entered into a standoff with the government, retreated to their heavily-armed and booby-trapped property, and disrupted our town for months.

As the spring progressed, a succession of supporters from all over came and went from the property. The Browns vowed to resist arrest violently and to die rather than go to prison. In the summer, they stopped paying town taxes, too, and started having press conferences, concerts, picnics and high-profile visitors, including Randy Weaver, who lost family members in the Ruby Ridge confrontation in Idaho in 1992. SWAT teams and federal agents kept up constant surveillance, looking for a way to end the standoff.

The way of life on that back road, and in town, changed. The threat of violence made the area unsafe. School buses weren’t allowed up the hill. If there was any kind of medical emergency on the property or nearby, our rescue squad was instructed to stage and wait for clearance to respond. Neighbors were subjected to strangers walking in the area at all times of the day or night. Television trucks parked outside the Town Hall day after day after day. Threats were made against law enforcement personnel. Helicopters flew overhead.

The potentially explosive situation ended without incident when Ed and Elaine Brown were arrested while sharing pizza with “supporters” who were actually federal agents.

Now, seven years later, Elaine Brown has written an open letter “To the People of Plainfield” from her prison cell in Alabama, asking forgiveness for all the fear and anxiety she and her husband caused. Should the town of Plainfield forgive her? Given the danger and disruption they exposed us all to, can we?

I believe we can and should forgive Elaine Brown.

Certainly there was the potential for great harm during the whole standoff. Because of the explosive devices, any potential buyer of the property must sign a waiver releasing the federal government for liability for death or injury before being allowed on the land. The Browns had thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition stockpiled, and were prepared to use it.

The town of Plainfield lost more than $150,000 in tax revenue and is now saddled with a property in town that will probably never be guaranteed safe and may likely never sell. The tab for the whole operation, both federally and locally, is large and the toll on those nearby or those threatened is incalculable.

Yet no one died in the ordeal. We aren’t burying our whole kindergarten class or mourning fallen officers or digging out burned-out property as some towns are. Life on that back road has basically returned to normal — the school buses are back, and there are no restrictions on travel except for on the property itself. Elaine and Ed Brown are paying their debt to society. They are in jail for what is tantamount to the rest of their lives: Ed is scheduled for release in June 2045, when he would be 103, and Elaine is scheduled to be released in November 2042, when she’ll be 102. It’s probably safe to say that they won’t be coming back to Plainfield.

That’s why I think we can forgive Elaine Brown.

Forgiveness is a choice, however. We could decide not to extend it. I believe we should take this opportunity to forgive her because forgiveness is such a powerful tool for healing.

In her letter, Elaine says she is asking forgiveness of us just as she has asked for forgiveness from God. To those of us who are Christians, our individual response should be modeled on Jesus’ admonition in the gospel of Luke: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.”

Elaine’s letter was couched in religious terms, but it was addressed to all the people of Plainfield, religious or not. It’s important that our community extend forgiveness because unlike Newtown or Aurora or San Diego, we, literally and figuratively, dodged a bullet. If we can’t forgive under these circumstances, how can we expect towns that have suffered much more to be able to take steps to healing?

Extending forgiveness does not deny in any way the very real suffering that occurred and the costs of the actions that the Browns took. What it does do is allow a community not to be held hostage forever to the misguided actions of a few people.

I didn’t have a death threat against me and my daily routine wasn’t completely disrupted seven years ago, but I was affected by their actions like other townspeople were. For my part, I can accept Elaine Brown’s apology in the spirit it seems to have been given and I hope she finds peace.

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.