Some Thoughts On Violence, Insanity & Politics
Now that tempers are cooling a bit, and the slanderous narrative promulgated by far-left media sources in the wake of the Giffords shooting has largely been rejected by the American public, perhaps we should reflect upon the role of violence in our history, culture, and political disputes.
Among the many perfectly reasonable points made by Sarah Palin when she addressed the blood libel manufactured against her by the media was that there is no time in history we can compare the present one to in the vain hope of finding a more peaceful, less violent political tone. Andrew Jackson fought in 13 duels and even killed a man in one of them. He was far from the only US politician to engage in them.
Dueling has of course been condemned throughout history as well, and there are even Papal encyclicals forbidding the practice. Pope Leo XIII’s words summed up the Catholic perspective on dueling and in many ways, aggressive violence in general:
Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense… In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. (Pastoralis officii, 2)
In short: violence is not an acceptable way to settle a personal grudge. But it is acceptable under other circumstances. Even here Leo lists “public cause”, which I take to mean police officers, soldiers, and even executioners, and of course self-defense, which applies to everyone. It is another circumstance I wish to explore, however, and it is violence in resistance to tyranny. In another encyclical, Libertas, Leo states:
Whenever there exists, or there is reason to fear, an unjust oppression of the people on the one hand, or a deprivation of the liberty of the Church on the other, it is lawful to seek for such a change of government as will bring about due liberty of action…
Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power. (43 & 46)
Prudence dictates that violent resistance is a last resort, when all other possible means of resistance have been exhausted. Most Americans, even most of us who oppose the expansion and intrusions of the federal government, do not believe we have reached this point. But many of us speak and act as if this point can never come, that it would never exist. Even those who recognize a right and perhaps a duty to rebel against a Nazi or a Stalinist regime will argue that it “can’t happen here.”
Case in point: the hysterical reaction to Sharron Angle’s now infamous comment about seeking “second amendment remedies” to government tyranny. To many on the left and I imagine plenty on the right, this was heard as some sort of incitement to do what Jared Loughner did on Saturday. It is certainly easy to interpret the statement that way, if one chooses not to reflect on what the second amendment is or why it exists. First, let’s read it together:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
In my mind, “well regulated” does not mean “random, individual, unprovoked acts of violence.” It means a group of armed citizens that function as an irregular military unit with a command structure and clear strategic objectives. An excellent example of what a militia does are the battles of Lexington and Concord. The colonial militia discovered British plans to seize their stockpile of weapons and ammunition and engaged them before they could do so. The immortal words of Captain John Parker of the Lexington militia would serve as well for any modern-day milita:
“Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Was Captain Parker insane?
The short and honest answer is no. His order was clear: do not fire unless fired upon. That has nothing in common with what a psychopath such as Jared Loughner operates on. Let’s take another example: Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Though we may, and I do, identify Bolshevism with pure evil, I could not honestly say that Lenin was insane, for his orders were more or less the same: don’t fire first. Let the government make the first move. The aggressor always loses the moral high ground. This is warfare 101, and if one is speaking of second amendments and militias, one is speaking of this, and not the random acts of violence that have become commonplace in our society.
Even so, in today’s political climate, which is managed by a political class that is so invested in the perpetuity of the status quo that it would certainly be insane for them to rebel against it, Sharron Angle’s comment will naturally be portrayed as something unhinged and unacceptable. These people live in an isolated world, far from the border violence of the Southwest, far from the rows of dilapidated homes and small businesses lining cities such as Detroit, far from having to worry about such things as the price of gas or groceries. When the government gives hundreds of billions of dollars to criminals on Wall Street – the act that really called the Tea Party into being – it doesn’t affect their lives in a serious way.
Now we know the left has its own rhetoric and imagery of violence. Go to a college campus and see how many Che Guevara T-shirts you can spot. Attend a rally for immigrants or workers and see how many references to revolutionary violence you can spot. Anyone who attended an anti-war rally during the Bush years, such as myself, can tell you that the rhetoric and imagery of war and violence were everywhere. Even far-leftists in some cases were trying to cash in on the imagery of the American Revolution; I couldn’t go to an anti-war march from ’03 onward without seeing a couple of old hippie-looking guys in 18th century garb banging out a martial tune on a snare drum. If you were to ask any of them about it, they would justify their rhetoric and imagery in the same way any Tea Partier might: a revolution against an unjust regime (form their point of view) is just and necessary. We’d like it to be peaceful, but we prepare for the possibility it may not be.
So what we are really faced with here is not a conflict between the violent and the non-violent, but between those who value one kind of society and government, and those who value another. The rhetoric and imagery of violence on the left doesn’t bother me, as long as it is acknowledged to actually exist, and as long as such rhetoric and imagery is not assumed to solely exist on the right. Once we get past that meaningless distraction, we can focus on what matters: our visions and our values.
The political class is always talking about “unity” as if it were possible to actually set aside fundamental differences about what is right and wrong, moral or immoral, workable and unworkable. It is not possible. We cannot call evil good, and good evil, for the sake of unity. Because they know it, the political class gradually reduces what we may call good and evil without being labeled an “extremist” down to a few very general and mundane points.
In the best of times we had a federal republic in which people who wanted to live one way could live in one area and people who wanted to live in an antithetical way could live somewhere else. Even then we did not totally avoid sectarian violence and we eventually had a civil war. As we spread across the open spaces and swallowed up all the frontiers, society became a bit more cramped. After the communication and information technological revolution, it became claustrophobic. We have run out of places to escape to when society becomes deranged and hostile to our fundamental values.
That is the primary reason why our political rhetoric is heated, impassioned, and often violent. Whether or not we can continue indefinitely as a society carrying out a civil war in the form of a media-driven “culture war” without it turning into an actual war is something I don’t know. In the past migration and colonization were the safety valves that allowed civilization to continue in spite of mutually exclusive values and the destructive wars they sometimes necessitated; those are largely gone. Freedom of association and the 10th amendment, if respected earnestly, might ease the tensions, but I am not overtly optimistic on that score.
What I do know is that if and when political violence does come to substitute rhetoric violence irrevocably, it won’t be a Jared Loughner who incites it, a societal dropout who values nothing at all. Even if the Tea Party were to one day transform into some sort of para-military organization, it would be no more interested in a psychotic murderer like Loughner than the actual U.S. Army was.
Finally, in the end, you can’t call references to the second amendment insane without declaring the entire founding of the United States an insane enterprise. And if that’s how you feel, move to Canada. We won’t all agree on when second amendment “remedies” become necessary, but if we can’t even agree that they may one day be entirely rational and justified, then it is clear that we want to live in two different countries.