A Headless Citizen Stands Ready

At one time, back in the mid-nineteenth century, the only way to preserve liberty was to preserve the union. Breaking up the union mean the continuation of slavery. Preserving the union meant the end of slavery. Today, preserving our union means the end of our liberty. The only way to preserve our liberty is to break up our union.

If we stay in the union, we will surely lose our liberty. We have already lost many of them: the individual mandate for health insurance was the last of many straws. As we contemplate disunion, though, we have to look ahead and prepare. If the process of breaking up becomes violent, we could lose our union and our liberty. With discipline and foresight, we can preserve our liberty as we resist our government. Only non-violent resistance, however, will work. Violent resistance gives government the justification it needs for tyranny.

Look at the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety set itself up to protect the people. How did it do that? It cut off their heads. Headless people aren’t a danger to anyone, and they don’t have to be protected. Everything went well until the people ordered that the Committee members have their heads cut off.

Do you think a violent revolution is not possible here? Think a war can’t happen here at home? I have a hard time imagining it, too. Wars and other kinds of violence happen only in other places, we hope. That was the way we thought about the future on September 10, 2001. No one expects a war to start, until it starts.

Governments like violence when the conditions are right. Sometimes they conspire to foment it just to give them the latitude they love. Other times they inflate existing threats, or conjure ones that don’t exist. When citizens say, “Please, please protect us – do something,” government has the license to do anything it wants. When government can do anything it wants, liberties are gone. They’re set aside, crushed, ignored, deferred, diluted, and altogether weakened. Governments love threats to public safety. They love to monger fear to increase their own power. You’ve seen it happen here.

When government operates according to these principles, violence doesn’t work. Any new threat hands the government exactly what it needs to establish its own power, exactly what it requires to dissolve our republic and take away what remains of our liberties. If the aim of our resistance is to secure our liberties against a government that wants to take them away, we cannot rely on force. Force just leads to defeat and more bondage. Disciplined, patient resistance leads to liberation – freedom to live as we like, freedom to live and let live.

We saw two movements of resistance to governmental authority in our country about fifty years ago: the Vietnam war protests and the civil rights movement. The first arose from college and university campuses; the second grew out of cities in the south. Today’s movements of resistance grow out of the states. Protesters say they want their country back. One way to understand that cry is to hear them say they want local governance back.

Protests in the sixties did turn violent. We saw plenty of violence in both the Vietnam and civil rights movements, though the sources of violence in each case differed significantly. We don’t know where violence will originate in the coming revolution. Given the conditions of fear that exist right now, one prays that resisters of government authority can keep violence in check. If we see too much blood, fear and the crushing of liberties will stalk our cities and towns together.

The best way to resist is to ignore the federal government altogether. It tells you to buy health insurance? Don’t do it. A governor is bound to send national guard units to fight an illegal war? Don’t do it. Congress imposes thousands of regulations that make it difficult to run, let alone start a small business? Ignore them.

The question always appears: what can one person do? If I don’t pay my taxes, the IRS will cause me endless trouble and I’ll wind up in jail. All we have to do is remember Wesley Snipes. He tried to take the role of tax resistor, and look what happened to him. Jail. If Wesley Snipes sets an example for all of us, his sacrifice becomes worth something.

Collective action – whether for tax resistance or other kinds of resistance – is the only effective way. Collective action does not have to lead to violence. It can lead to violence, especially if the government initiates it. We saw governmental authorities initiate violence in the civil rights movement, and we saw governmental authorities initiate violence in the Chicago police riot of 1968. Fear and hate can exist on both sides. When government representatives experience fear and hate, it is especially brutal because government has so many resources available to it.

One resource government needs in the long run, however, is moral authority. It cannot collect moral authority, as it does tax revenues. It cannot recruit moral authority, as it does henchmen who use force. It cannot build moral authority, as it does weapons and all the other tools of destruction and repression it has at its disposal.

Government can only earn moral authority, and right now its earnings are at a low ebb. After torture of our prisoners, a financial panic and bailouts, an ineffectual Congress and abominable health care reform, it doesn’t have anything in the bank. For the first time since the 1960s, many people regard the federal government with contempt.

We will not see improvements in the way government behaves without collective action on our part. Citizens have to do more than dismiss representatives in congressional elections. Exactly what we have to do, we have to work out. We have to work it out together. Whatever we do, we have to work it out without the federal government’s involvement. It is not our government anymore.

Socrates said in The Republic that justice is minding your own business. He didn’t put the matter in quite those words, but the extended discussion of justice in that book points to that conclusion. Just mind your own business. That goes for everyone, including people who serve the public and exercise authority on the public’s behalf. If public authorities minded their own business, we would not see our current troubles. They have not minded their own business, however, and as a result our liberties are in big trouble.

Remember that justice and freedom go together. Without one, we lose the other. If we insist that government mind its own business, we can protect our liberties. If we let government do things it should not do, we can lay aside our role as free citizens.