An "Appeal to Heaven" Fizzles
Jerad and Amanda Miller thought the revolution had begun, so they shot a couple of police officers at a pizzeria and then walked over to a local Walmart to announce it. An armed shopper shot Jerad, so Amanda killed the shopper. When police closed in on the couple, Jerad was shot dead and Amanda killed herself. Did I mention it all happened in Las Vegas?
Bonnie and Clyde join the tea party.
Within hours of the shooting, the press reported that the couple were radicals and racists with "anti-government views." The couple had placed a Gadsden flag, bearing the words "Don't Tread on Me," over one dead officer. They also displayed a swastika.
This is what comes of arming the people to protect us against tyranny, the overflowing and abundant rhetoric of the Second Amendment. The Millers simply did what John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, published in 1690, counseled: they "appealed to heaven." The fact that their shooting spree did not spark a wider public flame is neither encouraging nor a sign of hope. The Millers, you see, are but an early symptom of what is to come. Brace yourself.
We're in for a rocky couple of decades as America remakes itself. Already, signs of a broader crisis of legitimacy abound. We've lost faith in government, and, for many Americans, at least if their rhetoric is to be believed, there's scant difference between an armed street gang and the cops: both saunter the streets with guns, imposing their will on others.
What makes life together possible in groups is the stuff of civilizing myths and political theory. A theory of legitimacy explains how the state acquires a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It permits us to say of the armed police officer: He is a public servant. We don't say that of street gangs -- gangbangers serve private, and, we say, anti-social ends.
One of our organizing myths is the social contract. We pretend that we are governed by our consent. The deeper structure of this myth recounts the formation of government by people in the state of nature, a pre-civil society stomping ground in which we each had the "natural right" to do whatsoever we pleased. We shed some of our natural liberty when we contracted with one another to form a society, and then a government. It all sounds so simple, and harmless, like friends meeting on the beach, deciding what to have for dinner at the evening bonfire.
But hidden within this rhetoric is the right to rebel, to revolt. If governors become tyrants, we have a natural right to rebel, to destroy the government, and to reclaim our natural rights. For centuries, students of political philosophy have studied Locke, and other contractarians, including Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Thomas Jefferson knew these writers well: He counseled regular revolution, lest government grow too complacent, and we lose our liberty.
I guess the Millers took it all a little too seriously.
It will be easy to marginalize them as cranks, and the press will now sift through the detritus of their lives, looking for signs of mental illness, proof that they had become unhinged.
But what if all they did was take seriously the rhetoric of those who argue, daily, that we need to arm ourselves against tyranny? That we need to be prepared to fight for our liberty?
There are plenty of people, and not just tea partiers, who spout that rhetoric. Folks cheered on Cliven Bundy recently when armed militia members turned out to stare down the feds at his Nevada ranch in a dispute over fees for grazing rights on federal land.
Eric Holder and the Justice Department regard all this as little more than domestic terrorism; that is precisely how King George regarded the colonists, except the colonists eventually won, and they created a new secular order, a new community, with a sense of legitimacy all its own.
The colonial revolution bore the seeds of its own destruction, however. When the Constitution was struck, its fatal compromise with slavery, the three-fifths compromise -- regarding slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes -- belied the commitment to equality. A gruesome civil war unpacked that contradiction. The Constitution was amended to eradicate slavery and to promise equal protection of the law to all.
But that new age never really arrived. The Atlantic just ran a piece on the case for reparations for black Americans by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates argued that 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow segregation, decades of institutional racism in housing and education, have left a scar on the American spirit. We've a national debt to pay.
Some thought the debt was paid when Barack Obama, the first African-American president, was elected. But no sooner was he elected than membership in white supremacist groups began to surge once again, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Indeed, plenty of people still cling to the fantasy that Obama is not qualified to be president because he was born in Africa (the Constitution requires the president to be a native American). What these folks are really saying is that a black man can't be president -- ever.
But a new day is coming. By 2041, white folk will be, for the first time in centuries, a minority in the United States. The so-called browning of America is sparking widespread anxiety. Look no further than East Haven, where plenty of town residents remain outraged that the federal government put white cops in prison for the manner in which they enforced the law against illegal, and brown, immigrants. I doubt taxpayers are singing Kumbaya this week as the town agreed to pay those immigrants $450,000 for their troubles.
We've more guns in the United States than people, and mountains of rhetoric and tradition that say the people must arm themselves against tyranny. My prediction? The Millers' rampage was an early warning sign. There's plenty more where they came from. The ties that bind are snapping. It will take hard work to reforge them in the years to come. We need a new myth, a new theory to explain our world.