Political Violence is Not an American Value

During the past two weeks, at least ten House Democrats who voted for health care reform legislation have received death threats or been targets of vandalism at their district offices. Several have moved their families out of their home districts to Washington. Both the U.S. Capitol Police and the FBI are taking the situation very seriously and have offered increased security protection to these Members.

There has been a lot speculation as to how we've reached the point where violence is now being promoted as an acceptable response to democratically-enacted legislation. The truth is that political developments over the past three decades have made such violence tragically inevitable.

The idea that individual Americans have a right to use violence when confronted with oppressive or overbearing government dates back to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. There is no doubt that our War of Independence was violent and that firearms were part of the necessary tools of victory. Our Founders, however, never intended revolution to be either perpetual or an individual exercise. They made that perfectly clear in 1787 with the drafting of the Constitution.

The Founders came to Philadelphia to begin work on a new governing document because of the fear of disunion and mobocracy that had gripped our young nation (Shays' Rebellion being just one example). The Federalists who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had no intention of creating an individual right to insurrection divorced from any organized authority. The Constitution itself stated that one of the primary purposes of the [State] Militia was to "suppress insurrections"--not foment them--and defined treason against the federal government as a crime punishable by death.

The insurrectionist idea was discredited again during the Civil War, when President Lincoln affirmed that our Constitution is not a suicide pact and can never countenance violence against the state. Nearly a century later, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower embraced Lincoln's view when he used the National Guard to prevent unruly mobs from obstructing the desegregation of Little Rock High School in Arkansas.

Of course, there have always been a small minority of Americans -- even at the time of our nation's founding -- who feared the consolidation of power in the government and believed the use of force was a legitimate response to federal encroachments. When the National Rifle Association (NRA) took a hard turn to the right after the 1977 "Cincinnati Revolution," the organization's leadership targeted this constituency by injecting the insurrectionist idea into our national political conscience. From the 1980s on, the NRA has expended significant resources promoting the idea in academic and political circles that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms for the express purpose of "preventing government tyranny." Perhaps this viewpoint is best epitomized by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre's assertion that "the guys with the guns make the rules" in our democracy.

This was a wonderful recruiting and fundraising strategy for the NRA -- attracting Libertarians, gun rights extremists, and others with a deep distrust of government. But the gun lobby wasn't the only entity seeking to appeal to the Limited Government constituency, and beginning with Reagan, the Republican Party increasingly began to portray government as a hostile, alien entity that serves only to restrict and deny the individual freedoms of Americans. Simultaneously, the GOP actively began to court gun rights activists that embrace the NRA's insurrectionist precept. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, this political marriage lost some of its appeal, but only temporarily.

Following the election of a progressive, intellectual, African-American, Democratic president in 2008, the GOP saw an opportunity to expand its beleaguered base by reaching deeper into the insurrectionist community. In an act of political expediency aimed at defeating the Democrats' push for health care reform, the GOP forged an alliance with the Tea Party Movement. It also redoubled its efforts to satisfy the NRA and other gun rights groups -- even drafting and promoting legislation to exempt the States from all federal firearms regulation.

This new alliance was emboldened by the Supreme Court's decision in the landmark Second Amendment case District of Columbia v. Heller. While most people know Heller as the case that struck down D.C.'s handgun ban, language in the 5-4 decision seemed to embrace the NRA's insurrectionist idea and give license to individuals to take up arms against our government. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, "If... the Second Amendment right is no more than the right to keep and use weapons as a member of an organized militia... if, that is, the organized militia is the sole institutional beneficiary of the Second Amendment's guarantee -- it does not assure the existence of a 'citizens' militia' as a safeguard against tyranny."

Unfortunately, thousands (if not millions) of Americans in the Republican base believe the current administration is "tyrannical," and the GOP quickly lost control of the monster it helped to create. Armed protesters began to show up at health care town hall meetings and presidential speeches with loaded handguns and assault rifles. Calls for Nullification and Secession were heard from Red State politicians. And anti-government zealots began to attack government offices, culminating in the recent spate of political violence following the House's approval of health care legislation.

These are dangerous times for our nation. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, who recently received a fax with a drawing of a noose, saw the pattern and noted, "If we fail to learn the lessons of our history, we are bound to repeat them." Referring to the former Alabama militia leader who took credit for this month's vandalism of Democratic offices, Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, "The ideas that [Mike] Vanderboegh's militia groups were pushing were the same extreme anti-government ideas that inspired McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing."

Ultimately, whether it's by brick or gun or bomb doesn't matter. The most important idea in American political philosophy is that of equality; that one citizen's vote is as important as the next. When violence is used to undermine that principle, it corrodes our basic democratic institutions, including the rule of law.

Republicans and their allies -- including the NRA -- should be unequivocal in denouncing political violence. They should make it clear that not only is such violence criminal, but also anathema to the system of constitutional government created by our Founders. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) deserves credit for telling his base that "violence and threats are unacceptable" and "not the American way." But it's unlikely to help if he continues to describe the Democratic agenda as "Armageddon." The same goes for Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele who--after threats were reported-- described the signing of health care legislation as "the end of representative government" and said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "This woman has been derelict in her leadership duty to the country by not listening, by taking...the country down a bad road. And this November, they're going to pay. So let's start getting Nancy ready for the firing line this November." And then there was Sarah Palin's admonition to her followers: "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!"

At some point, Republicans need to accept that Barack Obama won the presidency not through a "coup," but through good old-fashioned hard work and the appeal of his platform. You can't overturn the results of our democratic process with violence when you are not satisfied with those results. Republicans should reject over-the-top rhetoric and stick with what really works -- organizing, campaigning, and most of all, good governance. That, after all, is the American Way.