Rhetoric, Right, and Responsibility in Alexandria

The shooting at an Alexandria ball field where the GOP Congressional baseball team was practicing was a tragedy that should never happen in America or any other country based on the rule of law and self-governance. However, no one can claim or feign surprise at such an act. Not today. Not in this America. And not after so many for so long have claimed with such certainty that the very reason for citizens to arm themselves is to be able to shoot at the government. Now, when someone levels a weapon at another human being, they have made a personal decision to do so and, unless there are legal reasons involving agency, they are responsible for their actions. There are those among us who love to talk about that personal responsibility when something like this happens. Let’s do that.

By now we have all seen the Tweet Senator Rand Paul sent sometime last year extolling Fox News-personality Judge Napolitano’s understanding of the rationale for the Constitution’s Second Amendment. Senator Paul (he claims a staffer did it) live tweeted a quote from a speech the senator invited the judge to give, quoting Napolitano as saying, “Why do we have a Second Amendment? It’s not to shoot deer. It’s to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!”

Senator Paul’s staff is rushing to say the senator never said those words. That is neither comforting nor relevant. He tweeted it on his official feed for the benefit of those who believe it and would vote for him to secure a Constitutional right that is in no danger. It’s the same reason then-candidate Trump said there would be nothing anyone could do about the Supreme Court were his rival to gain the highest office, except that “maybe the second amendment people, there is.”

The idea that your deer rifle and shotgun—or even your high-capacity, semi-automatic, high-muzzle velocity, U.S. military-look-alike rifle (it would be easier to just say “assault rifle,” wouldn’t it?)—will somehow, someday save the republic from an authoritarian who wants to siphon your liberty and turn the U.S. into a dictatorship is strong with the gun lobby (though their ire is apparently misplaced). It is so even though the government they would supposedly be fighting has flying death robots and nuclear weapons. It is, in a word, absurd. It also does not comport at all with what the Constitution says. I would have thought that would have been important to all those who suddenly found themselves to be “originalists” when Justice Scalia unexpectedly passed.

The Second Amendment of the Constitutions says, “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.” When you read it in whole and in context, the Second Amendment says that the people must retain the right to keep and bear arms to fight for the State. It is written that way because of the Founders’ disdain for the principle of a standing Army and the hope that the people would rise to collectively defend the State and its governance. There is no way to read it, literally and “originally,” as the last hope of a terrorized citizenry to tear down a government, though that is an obvious and necessary risk. How it is written, unfortunately, is no longer even relevant.

The man who brought “originalism” to the bench of the Supreme Court used a rhetorical trick to rid the Amendment of the pesky first clause and canonize only the part his own judicial activism could not stomach being “weakened” in his 21st Century eyes. Certainly plenty of others have pulled Founders’ writings on the virtues of maintaining weapons to secure individual security instead of that of the State, though not a single Founder or Framer could possibly have foreseen the State as maintaining a standing Army with weapons capable of killing hundreds of millions at a time or just a single person from over 7,000 miles away with literal fire from the sky. There were some, perhaps many, who believed in that rationale of individual self-interest. The question is, particularly for those who want to interpret the Constitution in terms only of what the Framers meant when they penned it, why didn’t they just write it that way? I could have done so. It might read, “In order to protect individual liberty from the natural and tyrannical tendencies of the State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It isn’t hard to write what you mean. The Framers did, but those meaningful words are no longer the issue.

We are all now subject to the idea that the .308 bolt-action rifle or 7.62 semi-automatic AK-47 knock-off in our gun safes (I’m assuming a level of responsibility that does not exist everywhere) are there for us to water the “tree of liberty” with the “blood of patriots,” another quote misused and misunderstood. It cannot then be a shock when someone decides to exercise that idea as enabled by the right to legally keep and bear firearms. Perhaps the only surprise, to some, is that the members of that government who happened to be on the ball field are thought to be the tyranny we are all warned about by the primary organization responsible for such rhetoric, an organization whose campaign funding was almost certainly put at risk on an otherwise quiet morning. Those on that ball field are not that tyranny. Far from it. Tyranny like that does not exist, nor has it in the past 150 years, and that brings us back to personal responsibility.

A man leveled a gun on members of Congress. That was his choice. He is responsible for that action. But there is responsibility in the rhetoric that made him think it his patriotic duty to do so. Judge Napolitano is no less responsible for the consequence of his words than the man looking down the sights at what represented a portion of the government he believed did not represent him. Senator Paul is no less responsible for quoting the thoughts of a judge whose legal qualifications, fine as they must be, landed him a job on a partisan television show than was a man who decided the judge was right about the intended purpose of his weapons.

I keep saying this, so far to no apparent avail, but words have consequences, and we better start acting like we understand them. We are now in an eerie realm where it is somehow accepted to talk openly about the violent overthrow of the government, killing presidents because of who they might put on the Supreme Court or because we are disgusted and fearful of the one who made that allusion, attacking the independence of the judiciary, and telling people at political rallies to knock the hell out those they disagree with. To be fair, we only think any of this is a good idea when the rival party occupies the seats of power…which for half of us at any given moment is all the time. There is no justification for such talk or the violent imagery that accompanies it for freely elected governments, and the invocation of the Founder’s thoughts on such things are devoid of meaning without the acknowledgement of the very different context of the times.

The Founders lived through the formation of the very first government of its kind on the face of the earth. There was only a fleeting sense that it would work. Only in their wildest hopes would the first man to occupy the presidency voluntarily step away from ultimate power. Only in the dreams of the Framers would the checks and balances they devised make it so difficult for a single man or faction to gain a stranglehold on power that more than 240 years later, there has been only one existential threat from insurrection, only twice has a president been impeached, and never has there been anything other than a peaceful transition of governmental power. Many of the Founders may have thought their muskets—let’s at least be honest, that is what the Framers meant when they wrote it—were necessary to keep them free from the tyranny of the government they did not know would work so well. Their fears have been overcome by the magnificence of their achievement. It was that enduring optimism, a grand wager on the good conscience of a future public they so effectively modeled, that led them to write the Second Amendment the way they did.

Glorifying violence toward the government does not make you a patriot. Neither does, it must be said, sharing the imagery of violence even under the guise of art. Taking photos with the faux severed head of a president or putting on Shakespeare in the Park to “update” Julius Caesar with the assassination of a presidential look-alike are vile attempts at notoriety that do nothing to quell the very real dangers we now face from a vindictive and incurious man most of us voted against sitting in the Oval Office. What these have in common is that those propagating such filth and nonsense share the responsibility when someone decides to act out in deference to their stated ideals. We are, because of the second named right in the First Amendment, free to say these things, of course. We are free to take photographs we wouldn’t show our children, and we are free to have the audacity to try to “improve” on Shakespeare. None of those evocations of a right mean we should. What it does mean is that if we make that choice, we ought to also be held accountable for actions that follow in the vein of our protected speech.

When I was child and the gun lobby was a far-off nightmare, I was taught never to point a gun at something I didn’t intend to kill. The First Amendment corollary is that one should never say something unless they are willing to accept the consequences of someone carrying out the message. When we start to take ownership of what comes out of our mouths, maybe we can alter the course of human events for the better. Until then, take cover. And keep your powder dry. You never know who might think you the enemy and decide your words are very fitting for the action they intend.


Let Them Stand

Author’s note: I wrote this before I read the transcript of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s explanation for taking down Civil War monuments around the city. His rationale is compelling and has altered some of my thinking. I hope, as he alludes, they will be moved to a place where all citizens can have the opportunity to deal with a dark time in our history in an honest and forthright manner, perhaps in the same way Germany has dealt with its inhumane past. I am posting this because much of what I have to say is echoed in Mayor Landrieu’s comments. It is also important to highlight the fallacies of both sides of this argument and to call those who fought against our country what they are. But this piece is also illustrative of what is possible when one is willing to critically consider counter-arguments to your own way of thinking. That, more than anything else, may be the ultimate lesson in all of this.

I am watching the national attempt at cleansing a terrible past with much interest and some trepidation over what it says of our ability to effectively deal with history. In many cities across the south, citizens are trying to have Confederate monuments and memorials removed. I say the following with even greater trepidation. While I do not think the Confederate Battle Flag should ever fly over this soil, removing monuments is a mistake.

Because of a fluke of fate and my father’s military career, I graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a different school experience than I had ever had. Being the son of an Air Force officer, I had gone to school mostly on military bases among a student population that was a better reflection of what we now call diversity than many schools desegregated by law but still segregated by geographic choice, a lack of economic means to alter that geography, or simply—as was the case at Lee High School—internally self-segregated by the students who chose not to mingle to any degree not forced on them by the class schedule. It was not easy. I was the new kid among those who’d gone to school together their whole lives, a short boy of fifteen with long hair and a penchant for English football in the early eighties deep south. I confronted overt racism for the first time in my life, sometimes from those whom I considered my friends and once from a church youth group who told me I was welcome but my friend, Omar, was not. Race was a palpable and ever-present undercurrent. Yet on Friday nights we cheered a football team that was majority African-American wearing the jerseys of the Lee “Generals” in a stadium only blocks away from the First White House of the Confederacy. It was all very surreal for a teen trying to figure out who he was in the world.

Now the city council of New Orleans has decided that several Civil War monuments around town must go. Not surprisingly this has dredged up heightened tensions and plenty of hyperbole from all involved. Activists for removal rightly claim the statues are of men who stood with an evil cause, one that could hardly be judged as just, and very nearly cleaved the nation in two. Defenders of the monuments rightly claim the men in those statues and those nameless thousands they represent fought a war with honor and deserve to be remembered for it. There is plenty of hate and vitriol on all sides.

Removal activists are often not content with critiquing the contribution to devastation the men on these pedestals made to their once and future country, deciding instead to personally denigrate those who support keeping them standing. They should recall the behavior General Ulysses Grant modeled at a critical moment. At Appomattox, after General Lee surrendered, Grant ensured his men gave proper respect to a general officer he had met in battle and allowed Lee to keep his sword and ride off on his own horse. It was the first act of restoration for a battered Union, a magnanimous gesture that set the stage for a just and lasting peace.

Monument supporters too often cling to the hollow sentiment of “heritage not hate” and actively deny the central role that slavery held in the rationale for war. Such nonsense is not up for debate. The official grievance of the Confederate States specifically mentioned slavery and the protection of the agrarian society it supported as a fundamental cause for secession and threat of war. Those who desire only to remember men of valor have allowed official symbols to be high-jacked by those who care nothing for the heritage of honorable men practicing jus in bello on a battlefield more than a century and a half gone. These are the forces of hate that drive white nationalists and supremacists. Those who truly believe only in honorable heritage have been far too silent about the motives of these opportunistic interlopers and have allowed them to alter the meaning of Confederate symbols for all time.

These are the intricately woven strands of the history of the Civil War and what it continues to project into our own time. How are we to address such a tangled past? Well, one thing is clear. Tearing down monuments, changing the names of law schools, erasing any public evidence that these men existed, attempting to whitewash what they must have believed in their hearts will not alter the painful history of the war that was one further step in the American Revolution. I am willing to do as Grant did and give these monuments and statues their proper due. I am willing to believe those who say they only want to preserve a heritage of honor on the battlefield. But I will also confront history as it was, not how those with political agendas for the twenty-first century—whatever they may be—would wish it to be. And I will judge equally harshly those who attempt to shackle their fellow citizens with the sins of a past they cannot alter and those who continue to use symbols that are now synonymous with hate in vain attempts to live some longed for, though never real, heritage. In this endeavor, such stone and bronze artifacts act as a portal to those dark days and hold us all to account for recalling the uncomfortable facts of our shared legacy.

By another fluke of fate—and my own military career—I have a son who was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Perhaps someday when I take him back to his birthplace, I will also take him to where I graduated into my latter adolescence and went off to make my way in the world. I will tell him that place is named for a man who fought well but led an army against the United States of America in order to enshrine on this continent the concept that one human had the right to subjugate another under force of slavery. That is the distasteful and honest truth. It bears remembering. And it bears remembering that great men of uncommon character fought to crush that concept and drive it from the conscience of humanity, so that school names and statues are its only bequest. If a few monuments around our cities can sear that into our collective psyche, we should never let them fall.