A year ago this week, after the horrific shootings at the Canadian Parliament building, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to his nation.
“Attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all,” he said.
As I listened to Harper that night, I wondered how many Americans would share that view about their own country’s institutions. I’m sure most would, especially if it involved an Islamist radical, as was the case in Ottawa. But there’s also a dangerous undercurrent in our political thought today that makes me wonder what the reaction would be if the attack came from a different quarter.
At the time of the Canadian shootings, we were just a few months past the Cliven Bundy spectacle in Nevada. Bundy was farmer who had lost a string of legal decisions regarding grazing fees he’d owed going back decades.
Hordes of armed civilians rushed to Bundy’s side and were ready to fire on federal workers trying to enforce the court’s orders. A civil matter was about to erupt into a shooting war.
Bundy became a rock star to parts of the right, with politicians and media commentators comparing him to American revolutionaries.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose campaign for the Republican presidential nomination flamed out a couple of weeks ago, bragged about how his battles with state workers showed that as president he could deal with Islamic State terrorists.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe,” he said when asked about the Islamic State. Note the easy equation of public employees with members of a barbaric terrorist organization.
Iowa’s newest U.S. senator, Joni Ernst, once bragged about carrying “a beautiful little Smith & Wesson” to defend herself “from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
Without a doubt, we should always be suspicious of what the government is doing; that’s not just a conservative idea. The American Civil Liberties Union has long associated itself with the quotation, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” often and probably incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
It was liberals who were the loudest opponents of the rise of the national security state in the 1950s, with its attendant blacklists and McCarthyist paranoia. And I’m sure that Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of muscular federal intervention in civil rights matters, didn’t appreciate having the FBI spy on him.
But keeping our government in line is tedious work requiring constant oversight — eternal vigilance — over everything it does. Packing heat for the day when the government comes after you is simply planning for the worst case instead of trying to prevent it.
I’m having trouble finding a distinction between Bundy’s supporters and members of the Sovereign Citizens movement, like those who took the lives of two St. John the Baptist Parish deputies in 2012. If there is a border that separates one view from the other, it must be pretty porous.
We are at a point now where U.S. law enforcement agencies perceive “anti-government violent extremists,” not Islamist radicals, as “the most severe threat of political violence,” according to a recent study.
A tendency we see on the streets, the potential for a verbal disagreement to spiral into a shooting, seems to have infiltrated the political views of many Americans. They’re looking to use bullets, not ballots, to settle policy disputes, and public employees are in the line of fire.
Email Dennis Persica at firstname.lastname@example.org.