“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
From about March 2007 until September 2008 – eighteen months – the storm clouds gathered over the nation’s real estate bubble and the organizations that created it. Some people saw the collapse coming in 2004 or 2005. By March 2008, everyone could see the financial system was going to serve up a truly historic panic. When Lehman Brothers collapsed and the panic actually occurred six months later, so many people said, “Who could have predicted that? No one could have seen that coming!”
How could the panic not happen? When something cataclysmic occurs, we can’t predict when it will arrive, and we don’t know just how it will unfold, but no one who looks up can doubt that something is on the way.
The same holds true now for the social turmoil that is on the way. We don’t know exactly when it will arrive, and we don’t know just how it will unfold. Actually, the Tea Party and the Occupy movements have yielded some interesting evidence about where we are headed. So has the government’s response to any number of questions about civil liberties. We are headed for a period of turmoil that could make the 1960s look quiet by comparison. We just don’t know how it will unfold.
Just as we prepare our houses when we know a hurricane coming, we can do a few things to prepare our country for the coming storm. Our republic almost didn’t make it through the Civil War. At that time, 150 years ago, democracy survived while the country fell apart. Today the nominal country stays intact while democracy dies. We have to prepare for the worst. Three items come to mind. The first two I have discussed elsewhere: I’ll mention them briefly here. The third one sounds over-dramatic, but it’s worth thinking about.
Item one: Look for new leaders in unusual places. We will not find leaders we can trust in the usual way. The usual way relies on two political parties to recruit candidates for high office. Citizens vote for candidates based on their expectations about the quality of leadership they can expect from the candidates. We have reached a point where the citizenry is fed up with its leaders. The current, institutionalized system for selecting leaders has not served the country well. It has given us leaders who do not preserve and protect our Constitution. Therefore we have to ignore them. They claim legitimacy, all the authority of law and tradition, but we have to turn our backs on them. We have to do so with faith that we’ll find new, effective leadership in unlikely places.
Item two: We have to seek constitutional change that occurs without undue violence. We want to avoid violence not only because non-violence is more defensible morally, or because it is less painful physically and emotionally. These statements may be true, but as citizens we choose non-violence primarily because it yields better outcomes. It is clearly the most demanding path: non-violent constitutional change requires discipline, commitment, a high degree of skill and planning, restraint, faith, joint action, courage, sacrifice, and judgment. We as heirs of the Founders have not shown a clear willingness to go down this path – yet. I would say the willingness will come when we have found leaders we want to follow.
Item three: The last thought arises in connection with the violence we can expect from the government during the upcoming storm. The Syrians have lost 5,000 of their number in a non-violent effort to rid themselves of the tyrant who rules them. That is no small amount of violence. What if something similar happens here? What if government responds with force to arrest large numbers of citizens who want their voices heard? It has already done so.
We want to prepare for the time when people who have to use force against their fellow citizens begin to defect. We have seen the phenomenon already in Syria. Many members of the armed forces no longer want to shoot at their unarmed brothers. If they depart their station to defect, though, they have no place to go. They’ll be shot in the back if they walk over to the other side. Fear restrains them: the same tyrant who orders them to shoot at crowds will shoot them as well without thinking twice.
Our government is not so wicked as Syria’s right now, and we cannot tell how it will react to extreme pressure. Its behavior during the last ten years is not encouraging. It places security ahead of liberty – especially its own security. It places force and intimidation ahead of its own legitimacy. It places lies, propaganda, chronic dishonesty and hypocrisy ahead of anything that even resembles candor. When political speech becomes this corrupt, government itself becomes illegitimate. When government trashes the Constitution, it commits a unique form a betrayal. It practices gradual treason from inside the republic’s own institutions of power.
To prepare, then, we have to think about how to help those who wield instruments of force against unarmed citizens. We have to help people who reveal the truth about how government operates. We must offer people who refuse to follow orders some protection, some place of refuge. People who say “Enough,” who turn and set an example of courage, should not be left alone and vulnerable. They need to know they have support. They need some place to go for help during the storm. They need to have an option to go underground long enough to protect themselves and their families.
I’m thinking of course of Bradley Manning’s example. He said “Enough,” even though he was completely vulnerable and without any kind of protection. We have seen how government treats people who act on behalf of the truth. We have seen how government deals with anyone it regards as a threat. It has held Manning in solitary confinement since May 2010, without bringing charges and without granting a hearing of any kind. We have seen how government deals with people who are vulnerable and who act to reveal government’s crimes.
In the coming struggle, we want to offer assistance to people who have courage to resist. We want to help them before government can imprison them. We want people who take the lead in this struggle to know that their fellow citizens stand behind them. Then non-violent action with good leaders can happen. Then civil resistance that leads to change can occur. Then citizens can restore constitutional governance.