Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Post-Bundy Standoff, and Why Militias are Alarming

To follow up on my last post, we could have a teaching moment here, on why private armies gearing up for possible war on the Federal Government are dangerous and not good guardians of liberty, even apart from the issue of race.  To recap, at least some local residents have found the militias an ominous presence.  Some local hotels have received threats from them.  And no sooner was the standoff over, than the militias started quarreling among themselves, escalating to the level of fist fights and threats to shoot, though no actual shooting.  I assume militia members would dismiss any local residents who found them intimidating as hysterics who failed to understand their good intentions, threats as the work of a few bad apples, and quarreling among themselves as the work of FBI provocateurs (though they might disagree on who the provocateurs were).  But I would say that these things go to the very nature of the militia movement and are good grounds for worry.

Some people ask, what is the harm in preparing for the extremely remote and mostly hypothetical possibility of the need for violent revolution.  After all, if (as is most likely), that day never comes about, nothing will come of it.  But I see a number of things wrong with forming private armies and constantly gearing up for war.  Some are views I have long held; others are brought into sharper focus by the recent events on the Bundy Ranch.

The militia movement is heavily fear-based.  Let's face it.  People do not, in fact, invest so much energy and world view as militia members do in something they consider an extremely remote and mostly hypothetical possibility.  People only invest such energy in something they see as a real danger.  David Frum offers a revealing quote from Wayne LaPierre of the NRA:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?
Frum suggests that this is a good way of expressing racial anxiety without ever actually mentioning race.  But to me what is truly extraordinary is the level of pure anxiety at work here.  The overall message is loud and clear -- Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Or consider this response to sale of a "smart" gun electronically programmed to be fired only by its owner,“If Iran fires a ship launched missile with EMP causing nuke that explodes at 50,000 ft off shore that fries my electronics … will my gun function?” So apparently this person considers being hit by an Iranian missile to be a serious danger.

Fear undermines trust is essential to the working of a civic society.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong in saying that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but underneath it is a real point -- that exaggerated fear can amplify manageable dangers.  Fear is, IMO, the most powerful of all emotions because it is the only one that taps directly into the self-preservation instinct.  And taping into the self-preservation instinct taps into, not just our animal nature, but our cornered animal nature.  And we all know how dangerous a cornered animal is.  Certainly, it is my opinion that fear is a greater threat to democracy than power lust because the most power-crazed leader is harmless without followers.  And what is most likely to motivate followers is fear.  Robert Altemeyer's hypothesis is the same; he found that authoritarians score high on the fear scale and the sense that the world is about to collapse into chaos, and that fear leads to aggression.

The militia movement assumes that only brute force matters.  Hobbes can say that clubs are trumps, but he was, after all, describing a society emerging from an extended civil war.  Mao could say that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, but he was describing a country in which legitimate, functioning government had broken down entirely.  This is a topic I have commented on before.  Moral authority and trust are what make the civic society work.  The assumption that only brute force matters leads to "a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies."  Freedom and democracy depend, not on the constant threat of force, but the renunciation of force as a political tactic.  Security is never won by an ever-escalating arms race.  And the sort of society that would arise from what the militia movement proposes would not be democratic government, or no government, but government by whoever has the biggest arsenal -- a most undesirable state of affairs.

And finally, the tendency to faction is deeply rooted in human nature.  Any movement will be riven with factions; it is simply human nature to do so.  The question is not how to avoid factions, but how to keep them within civilized bounds.  Militia members will presumably tell you that the best way to restrain factions is to arm them to the teeth and give them military drill so they will all know the consequences of stepping over the line.  See all my sub-headings above for why I don't think this would be a good idea.  There are two main reasons revolutions so often end up devouring their children.  One is the innate human tendency to factions.  People who stand united in considering the status quo unacceptable may have very different view on what should replace it.  The other is lies rooted in guns and the brute force mentality.  Once you accept violence as a legitimate way of resolving political differences, the habit can be very hard to break.  I have long believed that if, by some miracle, the militia movement ever did take over the country, the different factions would be at each other's throats in no time.  As events at Bundy Ranch have shown, it may happen ever quicker than that.

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