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Cliven Bundy: Revolutionary or Criminal?

By Dennis Riley

Within minutes of Cliven Bundy’s decision to tell us a few things about “the negro,” he pretty much fell off the national radar screen. The guys dressed in fatigues and carrying assault weapons continued to defend him as a patriot standing up against an oppressive federal government, but most of the rest of us decided that there wasn’t much to learn from reflecting on the actions of this Nevada cattle rancher and his so-called militia supporters, or the federal government’s reaction to those actions. But there is something to be learned from this situation.

Among our self-evident understandings of legitimate government is our assertion that “when governments become destructive of these ends [protection of the rights of individuals], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it….” It is exceptionally difficult to get any sitting government to recognize the legitimacy of an effort to “alter or abolish it,” but we said forcefully in our founding document that it ought to and that imposes on our government the obligation of figuring out how to react to situations just like the one posed by Cliven Bundy and company.

The first challenge confronting a democratic government faced by the refusal to obey the law stems from the fact that all revolutionaries are criminals but not all criminals are revolutionaries. You can’t participate in a revolution without breaking the law. You can break the law without the slightest thought of revolution. So government has to figure out if a particular law breaker is engaged in revolution or just garden-variety criminality. Seems easy enough in the case of Cliven Bundy. Tax evasion as an act of revolution seems a bit of a stretch.

But consider a couple of earlier cases of law breaking. John Brown tried to capture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., just before the Civil War. He and his men – several of them his own sons – were shot at, captured, tried for treason, and hanged. Upon learning of Brown’s fate, Henry David Thoreau – a revolutionary himself though a decidedly peaceful one – called Brown an “angel of light” and went on to say that the actions of Brown and his sons “filled him with pride.” Hardly the description one would apply to a common criminal.

Now step into the shoes of Martin Luther King. One of his most famous writings is titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for a reason. He was, of course, in jail for breaking the law. A few short years later, the march from Selma to Montgomery, a march for the right to vote, was greeted by mounted state troopers swinging clubs, the incredible power of fire hoses turned on the marchers, and dogs unleashed. Presumably Governor George Wallace did not believe he was sending his forces to confront men and women with a right to “alter or abolish” the segregationist government of his state of Alabama. Thoreau thought of Brown as a revolutionary. Virginia thought of him as the worst kind of criminal: a traitor. Who was right? Likewise, Wallace thought of King as a criminal. Much of American society thought of King as a revolutionary. Again, who was right?

Revolutionary or criminal isn’t just a question for journalists and historians to debate. Government has to react, and the big question facing it as it decides how to react is the question of how much force to use to enforce the law. The dilemma, of course, is pretty straightforward. If force is never to be used, we run the risk of sending the message that obeying the law is for suckers. Do what you want with no consequences. In a marvelous reversal of roles, I saw more than one liberal commentator lament the lack of action against Cliven Bundy on precisely those grounds. On the other hand, a “quick trigger finger” poses two very serious problems.

First, as noted above, there is a “right to revolution,” and government is supposed to respect that right. If we can’t agree on which folks breaking which laws are revolutionaries and which are “just” criminals, then we are going to be running roughshod over people trying to assert their right to “alter or abolish” a government destructive of their rights. In simpler if maybe starker terms, we are going to be hurting or killing people we shouldn’t. How would history judge Governor Wallace if the beating administered to John Lewis – then a young, soon-to-be preacher, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives – on the Edmund Pettis Bridge had left him not with a metal plate in his head but dead on the highway? How would history judge the governor if he hadn’t sent the troopers at all?

But what if government makes the right judgment? These are “just” criminals. During the terrifying urban violence of the mid to late 1960s, more than one big city mayor issued “shoot to kill” orders to their police departments. If the officers saw law violations – usually looting or arson, but others as well – they were to use lethal force. In trying to stand against such orders, United States Attorney General Ramsay Clark reminded us that if we caught, tried, and convicted a looter or arsonist, the punishment would not have been death. How could we justify killing them without the capture, the trial, or the conviction?

In short, democratic governments run great risks when they turn their guns on their own citizens. Yes, sometimes they have to. But only when the provocation is so extreme that no other solution to the problem can be found. Haymarket Square, the Pullman Strike, Waco – the list can go on. We don’t want it to.

Enough out of me.

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