Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation.”
~ John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 1961
When John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, he spoke to rally Americans in a great struggle against totalitarian communism. Only sixty years later, America’s enemies reside not in Moscow or Beijing, but in Washington DC. We recognize that threats to our liberties come not from abroad, but from our own government. I am not someone who paints a Hitler mustache on Obama and calls it a good day’s work. He’s not a tyrant and he’s not evil. He’s a patriot who works hard at a difficult job. He has not, however, changed Washington’s self-serving culture, and his philosophy of active, we-know-what’s-good-for-you government is radically misplaced. Moreover, the administration he runs has proven to be as secretive and undemocratic as its predecessors. Today Kennedy’s words rally Americans not as they face overseas enemies; they rally citizens who face their own government.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” We’ve seen people all through north Africa and the Middle East rise to this opportunity. Will we see a similar impulse to reestablish and protect freedom here in our own country? Will we even recognize how much freedom we have lost, and why we have lost it?
Citizens dare not tempt their government with weakness. When the government perceives weak citizens, it presses them ruthlessly and relentlessly. Eventually citizens lose all their liberties and have no resources left to restore them. Basic tools like free speech and even free thought disappear. Governments know how to grind people down, how to make them compliant.
To resist, citizens must have confidence that they are not helpless. To foster this confidence, citizens need to remain armed, even if they plan to use nonviolent resistance to defy the government’s power. Government must know citizens won’t submit meekly. Robust resistance requires civic confidence. If that confidence exists, citizens won’t require weapons to succeed.
The government has become the people’s adversary. It intimidates people, issues orders, corrals and questions them, ties them down with a thousand threads. It claims its rules are necessary for justice, safety, fairness, and order. It says it cares about citizens’ welfare, that it protects their rights, but every action it takes speaks the opposite. It cares not one bit for freedom, when freedom diminishes its own power.
What does destructive government do when it perceives it can manipulate weak, gullible citizens?
- Kennedy’s assassination reminds us what it does. It destroys an effective leader, and lies to escape responsibility.
- Waco, Texas reminds us what it does. It burns an entire community to the ground, murders almost everyone in it, then lies to make its action look justified.
- Vietnam, My Lai, Iraq and Fallujah remind us what it does. It initiates illegal, aggressive wars, and lies to hide its guilt.
- Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo remind us what it does. It tortures people in secret, waterboards prisoners and beats them to death, and does not even bother to lie when its crimes come to light.
- AIG, Bank of America, Citicorp, and Goldman Sachs remind us what it does. It allows financial institutions to claim special privileges to loot the treasury of our tax money, and arranges the panicky deals in secret.
- Wikileaks and Julian Assange remind us. It destroys people and organizations, destroys openness and free speech, then broadcasts still more propaganda to justify its actions.
Do we need more examples? Do we need more evidence for what happens when we let governments destroy whatever they like? Strong citizens armed with truth must resist a hand this heavy. Armed and dangerous doesn’t just spice up a police drama. Our own government is armed and dangerous. Our own government has demonstrated its willingness to destroy our Constitution to protect its power. That’s dangerous.
Government won’t back down unless it perceives it has adversaries equally strong. Its only adversaries, the only source of resistance for any government, must be the citizens who formed it in the first place. When government becomes unlawful, citizens must replace it. Criminals, cowards, bullies, liars and torturers have to be brought down, even if they wear the garb of legality and titles of institutional power. We owe allegiance to our constitution and to each other, not to self-serving people who say they lead us, but commit acts in secret that no leader with integrity would ever commit.
Let’s look at an episode just eight years before Kennedy’s address. What kind of leadership did Joe McCarthy give his country? What conclusions can we draw from his leadership? Consider the effects of McCarthy’s actions. He used fear and intimidation to turn people against each other. He used secrecy, innuendo and lies to make victims of people who had done nothing wrong. It can happen again. It has already happened.
If we let let fear and weakness lead to loss of our freedom, we’ll be ready for a master. If we let misplaced trust in government lead to tyranny and helplessness, formerly free citizens will have nothing to say. Government has not earned our trust, so we should not grant it. Government has acted illegally and dishonestly, so we should curb it. Government has not acted on our behalf, but that is its only mission: to serve us. It now serves itself. We have to respond accordingly.
Weakness breeds apathy and fear. It accepts the force of government intimidation. Gullibility breeds false belief and still more fear. It accepts deceitful propaganda about government’s activities. In a democracy, citizens dictate to government what the government should do, not the other way around. Let government fear the people it has tried to intimidate and deceive. Let government become nervous about its hold on power. You will see what an empty, illegitimate, immoral shell it is. You will see its authority collapse. You will wonder how it could ever have enforced obedience to its illegitimate rules.
Let’s not be weak and gullible when we respond to our government. Let’s be strong, skeptical and confident. Incredulity is a healthy attitude in these times. Let’s not act out of fear, nor refrain from acting out of fear. Do you think government mongers fear because that makes us cautious and therefore more safe? Do you think governments act out of benevolence or a sense of responsibility when they claim national security requires certain measures?
Governments promote threats and remove freedoms for their own reasons, not to serve others. Fearful citizens grant governments power to protect them, then learn the price in lost liberty. Let’s not ask government to protect us from things that make us afraid. Let government be fearful and respectful – of us. Let government look for protection from things that make it afraid. Let government retreat until it becomes not a master but a servant. After the way it has acted, it won’t find protection from citizens who are angry and fed up. It won’t find protection from citizens who want their freedom back. It has lost its friends.