Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. – John F. Kennedy
Those tempted to write off the standoff at the Bundy Ranch as little more than a show of force by militia-minded citizens would do well to reconsider their easy dismissal of this brewing rebellion. This goes far beyond concerns about grazing rights or the tension between the state and the federal government.
Few conflicts are ever black and white, and the Bundy situation, with its abundance of gray areas, is no exception. Yet the question is not whether Cliven Bundy and his supporters are domestic terrorists, as Harry Reid claims, or patriots, or something in between. Nor is it a question of whether the Nevada rancher is illegally grazing his cattle on federal land or whether that land should rightfully belong to the government. Nor is it even a question of who’s winning the showdown— the government with its arsenal of SWAT teams, firepower and assault vehicles, or Bundy’s militia supporters with their assortment of weapons—because if such altercations end in bloodshed, everyone loses.
What we’re really faced with, and what we’ll see more of before long, is a growing dissatisfaction with the government and its heavy-handed tactics by people who are tired of being used and abused and are ready to say “enough is enough.” And it won’t matter what the issue is—whether it’s a rancher standing his ground over grazing rights, a minister jailed for holding a Bible study in his own home, or a community outraged over police shootings of unarmed citizens—these are the building blocks of a political powder keg. Now all that remains is a spark, and it need not be a very big one, to set the whole powder keg aflame.
As I show in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, there’s a subtext to this incident that must not be ignored, and it is simply this: America is a pressure cooker with no steam valve, and things are about to blow. This is what happens when a parasitical government muzzles the citizenry, fences them in, herds them, brands them, whips them into submission, forces them to ante up the sweat of their brows while giving them little in return, and then provides them with little to no outlet for voicing their discontent.
The government has been anticipating and preparing for such an uprising for years. For example, in 2008, a U.S. Army War College report warned that the military must be prepared for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,” which could be provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse,” “purposeful domestic resistance,” “pervasive public health emergencies” or “loss of functioning political and legal order”—all related to dissent and protests over America’s economic and political disarray. Consequently, predicted the report, the “widespread civil violence would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.”
One year later, in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama issued its infamous reports on Rightwing and Leftwing “Extremism.” According to these reports, an extremist is defined as anyone who subscribes to a particular political viewpoint. Rightwing extremists, for example, are broadly defined in the report as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.”
Despite “no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence,” the DHS listed a number of scenarios that could arise as a result of so-called rightwing extremists playing on the public’s fears and discontent over various issues, including the economic downturn, real estate foreclosures and unemployment.
Equally disconcerting, the reports use the words “terrorist” and “extremist” interchangeably. In other words, voicing what the government would consider to be extremist viewpoints is tantamount to being a terrorist. Under such a definition, I could very well be considered a terrorist. So too could John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Roger Baldwin (founder of the ACLU), Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams—all of these men protested and passionately spoke out against government practices with which they disagreed and would be prime targets under this document.
The document also took pains to describe the political views of those who would qualify as being a rightwing extremist. For example, you are labeled a rightwing extremist if you voice concerns about a myriad of issues including: policy changes under President Obama; the economic downturn and home foreclosures; the loss of U.S. jobs in manufacturing and construction sectors; and social issues such as abortion, interracial crimes and immigration. DHS also issued a red-flag warning against anyone who promotes “conspiracy theories involving declarations of martial law, impending civil strife or racial conflict, suspension of the U.S. Constitution, and the creation of citizen detention camps.”
Fast forward five years, with all that has transpired, from the Occupy Protests and the targeting of military veterans to domestic surveillance, especially of activist-oriented groups and now, most recently, the Bundy Ranch showdown, and it would seem clear that the government has not veered one iota from its original playbook. Indeed, the government’s full-blown campaign of surveillance of Americans’ internet activity, phone calls, etc., makes complete sense in hindsight.
All that we have been subjected to in recent years—living under the shadow of NSA spying; motorists strip searched and anally probed on the side of the road; innocent Americans spied upon while going about their daily business in schools and stores; homeowners having their doors kicked in by militarized SWAT teams serving routine warrants—illustrates how the government deals with people it views as potential “extremists”: with heavy-handed tactics designed to intimidate the populace into submission and discourage anyone from stepping out of line or challenging the status quo.
It’s not just the Cliven Bundys of the world who are being dealt with in this manner. Don Miller, a 91-year-old antiques collector, recently had his Indiana home raided by the FBI, ostensibly because it might be in the nation’s best interest if the rare and valuable antiques and artifacts Miller had collected over the course of 80 years were cared for by the government. Such tactics carried out by anyone other than the government would be considered grand larceny, and yet the government gets a free pass.
In the same way, the government insists it can carry out all manner of surveillance on us—listen in on our phone calls, read our emails and text messages, track our movements, photograph our license plates, even enter our biometric information into DNA databases—but those who dare to return the favor, even a little, by filming potential police misconduct, get roughed up by the police, arrested, charged with violating various and sundry crimes.
When law enforcement officials—not just the police, but every agent of the government entrusted with enforcing laws, from the president on down—are allowed to discard the law when convenient, and the only ones having to obey the law are the citizenry and not the enforcers, then the law becomes only a tool to punish us, rather than binding and controlling the government, as it was intended.
This phenomenon is what philosopher Abraham Kaplan referred to as the law of the instrument, which essentially says that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the scenario that has been playing out in recent years, we the citizenry have become the nails to be hammered by the government’s henchmen, a.k.a. its guns for hire, a.k.a. its standing army, a.k.a. the nation’s law enforcement agencies.
Indeed, there can no longer be any doubt that militarized police officers, the end product of the government—federal, local and state—and law enforcement agencies having merged, have become a “standing” or permanent army, composed of full-time professional soldiers who do not disband. Yet these permanent armies are exactly what those who drafted the U.S. Constitution feared as tools used by despotic governments to wage war against its citizens.
That is exactly what we are witnessing today: a war against the American citizenry. Is it any wonder then that Americans are starting to resist?
More and more, Americans are tired, frustrated, anxious, and worried about the state of their country. They are afraid of an increasingly violent and oppressive federal government, and they are worried about the economic insecurity which still grips the nation. And they’re growing increasingly sick of being treated like suspects and criminals. As former law professor John Baker, who has studied the growing problem of overcriminalization, noted, “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime. That is not an exaggeration.”
To make matters worse, a recent scientific study by Princeton researchers confirms that the United States of America is not the democracy that is purports to be, but rather an oligarchy, in which “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy.” As PolicyMic explains, “An oligarchy is a system where power is effectively wielded by a small number of individuals defined by their status called oligarchs. Members of the oligarchy are the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military… In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”
So if average Americans, having largely lost all of the conventional markers of influencing government, whether through elections, petition, or protest, have no way to impact their government, no way to be heard, no assurance that their concerns are truly being represented and their government is one “by the people, of the people, and for the people,” as opposed to being engineered expressly for the benefit of the wealthy elite, then where does that leave them?
To some, the choice is clear. As psychologist Erich Fromm recognized in his insightful book, On Disobedience: “If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary). He acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle.”
Unfortunately, the intrepid, revolutionary American spirit that stood up to the British, blazed paths to the western territories, and prevailed despite a civil war, multiple world wars, and various economic depressions has taken quite a beating in recent years. Nevertheless, the time is coming when each American will have to decide: will you be a slave, rebel or revolutionary?
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead’s concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute’s president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute’s website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead’s aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom