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The cause of liberty is not hopeless

With the re-election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, some are convinced that the country has crossed the tilting-point and is destined for an accelerating descent into destruction. Obama’s re-election in the face of his incredibly poor performance as president has convinced many that our system is beyond hope. They believe (with good reason) that our electoral system has been corrupted by voter fraud and people selling their votes for government handouts, thus dooming our children and grandchildren to a life of subjugation and slavery.

A fair number believe the situation is hopeless, that preparation for war with those who have usurped our government is the only recourse remaining (though they’re unwilling to fire the first shot). They believe that we, as a nation, are too far gone down the path of all-powerful government and that nothing short of armed resistance can right the ship. The vast majority of these people are rational and reasonable folks who are simply frustrated by the constant and incessant erosion of rights as the federal government inexorably grows bigger, stronger and more intrusive. They do not seek or long for a civil war, but they fear that one is inevitable if the nation continues on its present path, and they see little chance of the path changing direction.

On the other side of the coin, there are those who believe that these “right-wing extremists” are a serious threat to the stability and security of the country. They see them as the “lunatic fringe,” blocking political objectives and threatening physical security. To them, the solution to the problem of “extremists” is to keep them under close scrutiny, limit their access to weapons and be prepared to crack down on them if they ever cross the line. Meanwhile they continually work to push that line closer and closer, giving themselves and the government more latitude and the “right-wing extremists” less – all the sorts of things the “extremists” are angry about.

The mix of “extremists” includes every political, religious and philosophical persuasion, from communist revolutionaries to neo-Nazis to anarchists, not to mention the “Occupy movement,” radical Islamists, illegal immigrants and the Westboro Baptist Church. All offend someone. All are seen as threats or instigators at various times, and all are used as an excuse to move the line to increase government authority and encroach on liberties.

What most people seem to have trouble grasping is the fact that there have always been “extremists,” and there have always been authoritarians. And there have always been those willing to surrender liberty in exchange for the feeling of security. The beauty of our constitutional system is that its default answer to these challenges is liberty. More liberty, greater freedom and increased openness may result in more potential and opportunity for political violence, but more liberty, freedom and openness also remove the drivers that fuel the perceived need for such violence. As First Amendment advocates have long held, the solution to offensive speech is more speech. Conversely, limiting an “offensive” neighbor’s liberty can only be accomplished by either “taking him out,” or limiting everyone’s liberty. Either option should be abhorrent and will inevitably lead to increased fear and tension.

Certainly there have been instances when our freedom appears to have facilitated political violence, but there are also many examples of government overreaching and authoritarianism doing harm to innocent citizens. From the Whisky Rebellion to the abolitionist movement and the ensuing Civil War to the internment of Japanese-Americans to anti-war radicals of the 1960s and ’70s, the balance of liberty and government power has swung like a pendulum. What the long-term impacts of the current unbalance will be depends on a variety of factors, most important among them, the degree to which the American people – and our elected leaders – have faith in our system of government and are willing to return to the foundations of the Constitution to find stability.

The nation was at a similar place in the early 1990s. Bill Clinton had pushed a radical liberal agenda, and a “patriot militia” movement was building and growing across the nation fueled by government-directed travesties like Ruby Ridge and Waco. Just as tensions between the two sides reached a boiling point, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. Rather than triggering some sort of patriotic race war as McVeigh had envisioned, the blast resulted in the almost instantaneous dissolution of the militia and patriot movements as people tried to distance themselves from McVeigh and his actions.

There is an all too common government tactic of using paid informants to push extremists into planning serious crimes as a method of building cases against them. Informants provide encouragement, technical assistance and sometimes guns or explosives, and then government agents swoop in at the last moment to save the day. That is what some believe happened in the McVeigh case. Some take it the step further and suggest that McVeigh was allowed to commit his heinous act so as to gain public support for authorities to crack down on the militia movement. Whether that was the case or not, “agents provocateurs” are still commonly used, and there are plenty in power who will remember the lesson of McVeigh – such as then-Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder.

Today, as our nation is again faced with the challenge of an overreaching federal government feeling threatened by armed citizens who demand adherence to the Constitution, my great fear is that one side or the other will cross the line, resulting in reprisals and a cycle of increased encroachment on rights answered by increased violent resistance. Whether instigated by federal “agents provocateurs,” overzealous extremists, or unconstrained politicians and bureaucrats, the immediate result will be loss of innocent lives and further degradation of the Constitution.

Now is the time to pray for leaders to emerge with the wisdom and strength to shed light, advance liberty and offer real hope for the future.