Clear and Present Dangers

No one wants some stranger to walk up to them, tell them they’re not a real American and they’re ruining things for everyone else, and shoot them dead, and then walk away, waving their American flag. That’s why the police, in theory, are supposed to have what is called a monopoly on violence, granted by the people, to take care of those who actually are ruining things for everyone else, according to the laws, written by the representatives of the people, at their behest. Yes, the police have recently been abusing their monopoly powers, shooting unarmed young black men dead and walking away with a shrug and back on duty the next Monday, but that’s the theory. We grant our government a monopoly on violence to prevent everyone from deciding who needs to be shot, and just shooting them. We just have to keep an eye on what the government does with that monopoly we’ve granted them, particularly at the local level.

That’s a fine theory. In reality, the Second Amendment, intended to make sure each state had a well-regulated militia that could be called upon to defend the country until the federal government could raise an army – the founding fathers thought a government with a permanent standing army invited tyranny – has been reinterpreted to mean that everyone has the right to be as fully armed as they wish. That breaks up the monopoly. You can defend yourself. Like-minded people can also get together to defend themselves, or the white race, as is common these days – or the capitalist system, or Christianity. In the late sixties, the Black Panthers armed themselves to protect their race. There is freedom of assembly. These groups, however, can’t just shoot anybody. But they can be fully armed. They have that right too, and this must confuse them a bit. What good is the right to bear arms if you cannot use them? If deadly violence used in individual self-defense is permissible, if that’s lawful, why isn’t deadly violence used in collective self-defense lawful? We’ve already broken up the monopoly after all.

We have, but we don’t allow deadly violence used in collective self-defense. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 198 people working for what he considered the Zionist Occupation Government – an act of what he considered collective self-defense. He saw himself as part of a patriotic group that wanted their country back. On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof sat quietly with a Bible-study group the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, as a guest, and then stood up and shot most of them dead, saying these black folks were not real Americans and were ruining things for everyone else. He also saw himself part of a patriotic group that wanted their country back. He hoped to start a race war. White folks, collectively, would rise up. They didn’t. And Timothy McVeigh was executed for what he had done.

Those were extreme cases, but extreme cases of this notion that sometimes the good people have to rise up, and in self-defense, do something about what they have convinced themselves is tyranny. That’s a constant worry in a society where there’s no longer an agreed-upon well-regulated monopoly on violence, and in April, 2009, the disagreements got heated:

Republicans said Wednesday that a Homeland Security Department intelligence assessment unfairly characterizes military veterans as right-wing extremists. The party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner, described the report as offensive and demanded that the agency apologize to veterans.

The agency’s intelligence assessment, sent to law enforcement officials last week, warns that right-wing extremists could use the bad state of the U.S. economy and the election of the country’s first black president to recruit members. The assessment also said that returning military veterans who have difficulties assimilating into their home communities could be susceptible to extremist recruiters or might engage in lone acts of violence.

“To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable,” Boehner said.

Fox News lit up for a week, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was the villain here. She insulted our veterans, but she claimed she was just doing her job:

“Let me be very clear – we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States,” Napolitano said in a statement. “We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.”

Napolitano also said the department respects and honors veterans but there was a problem:

In September, the agency highlighted how right-wing extremists over the past five years have used the immigration debate as a recruiting tool. Between September 2008 and Feb. 5, the agency issued at least four reports, obtained by The Associated Press, on individual extremist groups such as the Moors, Vinlanders Social Club, Volksfront and Hammerskin Nation.

But the references to military veterans really pissed off conservatives, which missed the main point:

The DHS assessment was made public on the same day that another report, from an organization that has tracked extremist groups for 40 years, found a 50 percent rise in the number of such groups since 2000 – to 926 today. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report attributed the increase in part to the election of President Obama as the nation’s first black president, and to a backlash against Latinos. Another factor: the weak economy.

People are unhappy. They’re armed. Of course they’ll recruit veterans if they can, but the DHS ended up retracting the report and slashed the number of analysts looking into this, so two years later:

The decision to reduce the department’s role was provoked by conservative criticism of an intelligence report on “Rightwing Extremism” issued four months into the Obama administration, the officials said. The report warned that the poor economy and Obama’s election could stir “violent radicalization,” but it was pilloried as an attack on conservative ideologies, including opponents of abortion and immigration.

In the two years since, the officials said, the analytical unit that produced that report has been effectively eviscerated. Much of its work – including a digest of domestic terror incidents and the distribution of definitions for terms such as “white supremacist” and “Christian Identity” – has been blocked.

Multiple current and former law enforcement officials who have regularly viewed DHS analyses said the department had not reported in depth on any domestic extremist groups since 2009.

The Obama administration was sorry anyone even mentioned veterans, even in passing. The conservatives won this one. The white-pride folks who always vote for them could assemble all they wanted, and bear arms of all sorts. Blacks and Hispanics and liberals would still wonder who was next – not that conservatives wanted anything to happen. The worry was useful. There are angry people out there. You don’t want them to do anything stupid, do you? Vague dread is a powerful tool. It’s also a pretty good name for a rock band, but that’s another matter.

But six years of vague dread was enough, or more than enough:

The Justice Department is seeking to draw more attention and resources to what it sees as a growing threat posed by domestic extremists, with officials noting that more Americans have been killed in such attacks than by international terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001. It is creating a new position to coordinate investigations, identify trends and analyze legal gaps to be able to better combat the domestic threat while keeping the pedal on international terrorism probes.

“As someone whose job it is to prevent terrorism, I take them equally seriously,” Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said in an interview Thursday. “It’s developing the capacity to do those both at once.”

Carlin didn’t mention veterans. He took away that distraction and looked at the real problem:

Attacks by white supremacists and people motivated by racial and religious hatred and anti-government views have killed 48 people, while attacks by individuals linked to or inspired by foreign terrorist groups have claimed 26 lives, according to the think tank New America. To try to stem the tide of such violence, Carlin said that he hopes to be able to announce soon the hiring of a new domestic terrorism counsel. The move, he said, reflects recognition of the challenge in investigating and prosecuting domestic cases.

Many incidents involve lone offenders who do not require a terrorist network, and increasingly the perpetrators are disaffected individuals who communicate their hatred over the Internet and through social media, Carlin said.

Salon’s Heather Parton adds this:

In making the announcement, Carlin pointed out that terrorists can be motivated by “the full spectrum of hate,” including bigotry, anarchism and racism. Considering FBI chief James Comey’s rather startling assertion that the Charleston massacre did not fit the definition of terrorism, this would seem to be a change of direction for the DOJ.

Surprisingly, Carlin also indicated that law enforcement he talks to around the country is specifically concerned about so-called sovereign citizens who reject all government authority. These would be the Cliven Bundy types who don’t recognize the federal government. They are in league with other right-wing extremist like the Oath Keepers, who also reject the authority of the federal government, but they do it in the name of the U.S. Constitution, along with militias and 2nd Amendment zealots, all of whom are armed to the teeth.

She sees a pattern here:

Nobody knows what influences someone to act on extreme ideology, but there are some common threads. Social media seems to be one way in which fanatics of all ilks find inspiration and common cause with others, as well as a vehicle to tell their own stories. But since anti-government sentiment seems to be the number one concern at the moment (even surpassing the “lone wolf” domestic Islamic terrorist threat), one wonders if the Republican candidates for president might want to think a little bit about their rhetoric on the stump.

She is referring to Ted Cruz and what he said in Iowa about the first Democratic presidential debate:

“It was more socialism, more pacifism, more weakness and less Constitution,” he told about 100 people crammed into a motel lobby in Kalona, a small town in southeastern Iowa. “It was a recipe to destroy a country.”

Speaking after the campaign event with reporters outside the Dutch Country Inn, Cruz acknowledged that he hadn’t actually watched the debate. During much of it, he was stumping at a Pizza Hut a half-hour away. But he had firm views on what viewers saw.

“We’re seeing our freedoms taken away every day and last night was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously. Last night was an audition for who would embrace government power for who would strip your and my individual liberties,” he said.

The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore is tired of hearing that this is simply fiery rhetoric, that this is just Ted being Ted, or that Cruz knows better and he’s playing his audience for fools, pandering. This is something else:

I’m sorry. I think this sort of rhetoric is a serious matter. Why? Because Cruz is one of those presidential candidates (along with Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee for sure; the exact position of several others is unclear) who claim the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to revolutionary violence against their own government if it engages in “tyranny” or doesn’t respect our rights. Here’s what Cruz said earlier this year in a fundraising letter:

“The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”

So when a guy like Cruz starts tossing around words like “tyrant” and “jackboot” and “destroy the country” and “strip your and my individual liberties,” isn’t it possible, perhaps even likely, that at least a few of his supporters might think he’s signaling that the time is near to get out the shooting irons and start executing the Tyrant’s agents? I really think Cruz, Carson and Huckabee need to be asked very specifically on the campaign trail and in debates exactly which circumstances would justify the armed insurrection they defend, and make it clear that Obamacare or a potential repeal of the gun-show loophole or an executive action on immigration don’t qualify.

How would they answer? When do you get your gun and with your friends, rise up?

But there’s more to this:

All this talk about liberal “tyranny” also illustrates the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of “constitutional conservatism.” Most liberals, even if they really, really hate conservatives, would concede that everybody has the right to contend for their point of view in the arena of elective politics. The central conceit of constitutional conservatism is to deny the equivalence of policy preferences, and to assert that favored conservative policies are permanently enshrined by the Founders – who in turn were inspired by divine and natural law – immune from popular majorities, no matter how large. It helps to understand that when someone like Ted Cruz talks about “liberties,” he’s not just talking about freedom of expression or even of religion, but the right to use your private property however you damn well please free from taxation or regulation or unions.

And there’s the larger problem:

If you feel your own point of view is the only legitimate set of ideas consistent with the Constitution or even the structure of the universe and the Will of God, then you are not going to be interested in compromise or limits on your exercise of power or civility towards the opposition, are you?

That’s where we are now, and Parton adds this:

Nobody can or should curtail free speech, whether it’s on the internet or on the campaign trail. Law enforcement has to respect the civil liberties of everyone, even anti-government crazies. But Ted Cruz is running for president of the United States, the very government he is railing against. And it’s irresponsible, not to mention incoherent, for him to encourage this level of paranoia. If he’s doing it solely for political purposes it’s feckless and ill-considered. If he means it, it’s worse.

There is probably no way to know exactly how much influence these insurrectionist conservative leaders have on the extreme fringe. But at the very least this foul rhetoric does little to discourage the violent impulses of a group of people who are already unaccountably angry and are armed to the teeth.

Federal law enforcement will not look at these political leaders as the inspiration for anti-government terrorism and it shouldn’t. They’ll be looking at much more prosaic forms of influence. But the rest of us shouldn’t let them off the hook. There’s a violent impulse in our culture that’s expressing itself in all sort of ways these days. It’s hard to imagine anything more dangerous than political leaders encouraging it.

That’s the clear and present danger, but there’s a final irony:

At a campaign stop in rural Iowa on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz told ThinkProgress that activists with the Black Lives Matter movement – people who have been peacefully protesting the murder of black men and women by law enforcement – are “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.”

When ThinkProgress asked Cruz if he’d be willing to sit down for a meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, he said “sure, I’m happy to meet with just about anybody.” But then he elaborated that the activists were threatening police officers.

“If you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the most disturbing things is more than one of their protests have embraced rabid rhetoric, rabid anti-police language, literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers,” the Texas senator said. “That is disgraceful.”

That’s odd. No one else had heard that, but perhaps it is all war now, one against the other, with everyone armed to the teeth. And Ted Cruz, a constitutional lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, is now suggesting it may be time for the violent overthrow of the duly elected democratic, and Democratic, government – but that’s only implied in all he says. He’s too smart to say that directly. Vague dread is a powerful tool. Feel it. Another presidential election is coming up.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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