I remember the early days of the militia movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s- or, rather, I remember the popular response to media coverage of the militias. Here, we were told, were people scared to death of everyone else, people who sought to overthrow any government they didn't approve of, no matter how many people did approve. These people gathered insane arsenals in their homes, usually ill-constructed shacks out in the wilderness, and engaged in standoffs and shoot-outs with federal authorities.
And everyone I knew, liberal and conservative alike, thought they were insane, dangerous, and un-American.
Today the militia movement, in its guise as the Tea Party, have taken over American conservatism. When Obama proposed simple, common-sense measures to regulate certain kinds of guns and their sale, the reaction of mainstream conservatism was universal: rush to the gun store to buy more guns, build up an arsenal, and prepare for the all-too-necessary overthrow of the elected government of the United States.
Think I'm joking? Think I'm exaggerating?
"I think they're gonna wait to see what Obama does, and I've talked with other of my colleagues on what's going on, and there's a general consensus that if he steps over that line that something has to be done. He feels like he's Abraham Lincoln, you know, we're not at civil war," Stockman said. "The line is when you cross from administrating executive orders which deal with his office and pass legislation through executive orders."
That's my Congressman who said that. (I didn't vote for him.)
"...they [guns] are used to defend human life. They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom, and they are absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live.”
That's a California state elected legislator.
And meantime, in response to Obama's call for a ban on high-capacity magazines and high-power automatic or semi-automatic assault rifles, legislators and governors in at least eight states, including Mississippi, are pushing for laws to nullify federal regulations- even to the point, in some cases, of threatening to imprison any federal agent who seeks to enforce those laws.
And in the meantime a gun manufacturer is proposing a fortress community in which everyone will be required to own and carry an AR-15 military assault rifle, Glenn Beck is pushing forward with his version of Galt Gulch, and at least one Congressman has proposed abolishing all gun regulation altogether. Meanwhile, we had a "Gun Appreciation Day" organized and sponsored by white supremacists, while Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk compare Obama to Hitler- "Hitler loved gun control!" (In reality, Hitler inherited a gun ban from the democratic Weimar government and DEREGULATED gun laws- but only for Nazis.)
With this kind of leadership, is it any wonder I'm constantly seeing, in comments on news articles and replies on Twitter, various people pointing out that they need guns to defend themselves from our tyrannical government in Washington?
I was going to offer you some quotes from a Twitter user who responded to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, making just that point- and adding that, unlike Shays' Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other examples, this time eighty million American gun owners would be on his side. I can tell you my responses, though:
Me: "First, Mr. (name), thanks for admitting you favor the armed overthrow of the United States... Second, subtract THIS particular gun owner from your revolutionary roster. I'm no traitor."
Him: "Not the United States, only our current tyrannical government."
Me: "This government which just happens to be elected by the people?"
It's absolute madness, but what can you do? When someone's in such a paranoid mental state, persuasion simply isn't going to work. The best you can do is publicly rebuke the insanity to discourage others from joining it.
And it most certainly is madness. Consider the obvious point first: even if you have unfettered access to assault rifles and massive amounts of ammo, there are simple financial limits to your ability to build an arsenal. You are not going to be able to buy, arm and fly your own F-23, for example. There may be thousands of surplus Abrams main line battle tanks sitting in Arizona unused, but you're never going to have the dough to lay your hands on a disarmed one, much less one that's fully operational. Most of all, you're not going to have 400,000 buddies fully organized and coordinated with satellite observation, command and control electronic communications, years and years of combat training and experience, and a single common purpose. Standoffs against the government of the United States never end in anything but victory for the US government, and to believe otherwise is insanity defined.
But what if you could? What if the armed might of the federal government simply stood aside and said, "All right- let's allow you people with political disputes to settle them with bullets. Have fun. We won't get involved at all." What kind of country would we have then?
What kind of freedom would we have, in a nation where every man feared every other? What kind of freedom of speech, when any dissenting viewpoint might lead to a hail of bullets? What kind of community could we build, when no one trusts anyone who is different in any way? When all government is to be hated, feared, and overthrown, how are laws to be made and upheld? How can contracts be entered into freely, without fear of coercion? How can justice be even-handed when the muzzle of a gun rests at the back of the judge's skull?
Yet this is exactly the kind of freedom today's conservatives insist upon- the freedom to be exactly like everyone else, or else be Other. To conform, or to be suspect. To be in, and all the way in, or else to be all the way out.
Such a state of affairs is, of course, part of our heritage. The situation I just described is how most of the South operated since before the American Revolution. Each man or woman belonged to a group. If they stepped outside their group, or into an area their group was not permitted, they were slapped down hard- often fatally, and as often without as with the sanction of law. Everyone agreed to smile and pretend and lie to themselves, but in reality everyone hated and feared everyone who wasn't part of their particular tiny group.
This is why, both during and after slavery, the South has been, and remains, the most un-free part of the United States, with the exception of Mormon Utah- and this only because the early Mormon Church took paranoia and fear to new heights. This is why the current Southern domination of the Republican Party has been disastrous for our country for the last twenty-five years (at least).
And, because they seek a time that was happy for them because they were the strongest and most privileged group of all those mutually hated groups, the rich and powerful men who control conservative thought in the United States- men like Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, and the like- these men seek to return us to those days, when freedom was only a word.
I do not want to live in a society based first, last, and always upon fear and paranoia. I want a society based on trust and empathy- and conservative thought, as it currently stands, can't even conceive of either trait.