Several years ago, I got together with a buddy of mine for an evening of great conversation, lubricated by a very fine bottle of scotch whisky. Deep into the night -- and the bottle -- there was a revelation. He had long believed that the real reason we had maintained democracy in this country for so long was because of the large number of gun owners, that the government had always feared a revolt by armed citizens, and that this kept the feds in check.
Lots of Americans believe this concept, or at least are familiar with it. The basic premise is that because of all the guns in civilian hands, the citizenry could always launch an armed rebellion and topple the government, if they felt it was justified. Knowing this, officials in Washington always keep one eye alert to this possibility, restraining their worst impulses. This notion, that anyone can lead a successful armed insurgency to topple a much greater force, was immortalized in the 1984 movie, Red Dawn, in which a cadre of high school students effectively fights off an army of well-equipped communist troops who have invaded the United States.
So why do I bring it up now, with so many other important stories in the news?
I always thought that this argument was hogwash. These are not the days of Lexington and Concord, where a group of citizens' militia commanded the same technology as the regulars. Today's military has resources far beyond what the average person can gain access to, that dwarfs anything they might have in its devastating firepower. From jets to flying gunships, to tanks that can even stop most anti-armor munitions, to precision guided rounds, to superior communications, the U.S. Army is top of form in the entire world. And courtesy of several recent wars, along with the Israeli Defense Forces, it is the best trained, most experienced and combat savvy force available to any nation, anywhere. So I always thought that the idea that the U.S. was vulnerable to armed citizens was a slur to the capability of our military. Provided they stay loyal -- and there are no indications of anything else -- the politicians in D.C. have nothing to worry about from this line of argument. And aren't.
But the final nail in the coffin is Libya. The UN has rushed through a resolution authorizing Western military support for the rebels, and airstrikes have begun. The general sense is that if these actions are not taken, the anti-Gaddafi strongholds will be wiped out, their followers slaughtered.
Look at the equation. The insurgents are armed far beyond the dreams of any group of civilians in this country. It is not just the fact that they have fully automatic assault rifles. Television images continually show them blasting away with twin Soviet 23mm anti-aircraft cannon; when aimed at ground forces, these are powerful and dreadful weapons. And look also at the other side, the government forces. They are ragtag, with a large dosing of mercenaries. Any first world force would destroy them in an open fight, far easier than we did to the Iraqis in the 1991 war.
But they're also about to annihilate the rebels, who have to be saved.
So here's the grim reality of modern war. It doesn't take much to trump armed civilians. An AK-47, on full auto, is devastating in a civilian setting or against law enforcement officers, but is the equivalent of spit against an armed vehicle. Soviet made T-72 tanks may have been fodder to American armor, but if all you have is a rifle, you are powerless against them.
The reason we have not had a revolt is not because of the fear of an armed citizenry. The few times in the modern era that the establishment truly worried about this, from labor and farm groups during the Gilded Age, they mobilized the army and the National Guard, put down strikes, and built thick walled armories in cities everywhere.
Instead, I think it is because democracy works. We allow all voices a chance to be heard, and elections provide a mechanism for each of them to pitch their case and go for the gold. Oliver Wendell Holmes' "free marketplace of ideas" still prevails, and the leader of any cause can try to become president. That may be what politicians really fear the most, and I'll stake my America on these ideals and practices.