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.

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