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Here are two quotations from the Oath Keepers website:

All patriots have one thing in common. Tyrants always brand them as traitors.

In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be. ~ Edward Snowden

We have just seen the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 come and go. Remember patriots like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and the Oath Keepers on this anniversary and through the year.

Oath Keepers ad

I know readers of George Orwell will see this ad as comparing Barack Obama with Joseph Stalin. They may reject it for that reason, but I don’t think that’s the point. Its purpose is to jar citizens into thinking differently about our government. You could put the image of any president in the center, and the message would be accurate.

Do governments have a right to defend themselves?

In this country, the feds call Edward Snowden a spy and a traitor. Others call him a patriot. Who is correct? Is our answer based solely on opinion or personal judgment, or do we have ways to identify tyrants who, out of self-interest, label patriots as enemies of the state? We’ll leave aside the question of whether President Obama is a tyrant. By several measures, the government he leads began a transition toward tyranny well before he took office, and has continued down that path since then. Its vigorous, even furious effort to bring Snowden to trial for espionage indicates how far down the path of tyranny it has travelled.

Let’s consider the case of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Few people here would hesitate to classify him as a tyrant. Nor would they fail to see the government he leads as a tyranny. Not surprisingly, he uses the same vocabulary to describe his enemies that the feds use to describe theirs. Because his enemies are armed, and he is at war with them, he calls them terrorists. They consider themselves patriots, as do their supporters around the world. They fight for the Free Syria Army.

Assad knows that if he can manage to win, many will be grateful because he brought stability and unity back to his country. His enemies will continue to hate him, but most of his enemies will be dead, in jail, or in exile. That’s the point of warfare: to get rid of your enemies, to make them impotent. When you accomplish that, the war is over.

That’s the might makes right perspective on violence and war. The winner makes the laws. The loser submits. The laws don’t have to be moral, but they do have to be backed by force. Every illegitimate government – that is, every tyranny – relies on the same means to maintain its control. If it did not need to rely on force, it would not be illegitimate.

Some people say that every government has a right to defend itself against those who would oppose it with force. Stated as such, this principle would extend to every government, including Syria’s. If even tyrannies have a right to defend themselves, then the war Assad wages against Syrian citizens is justified. If Assad chooses not to fight, his government would collapse.

Let’s return to the United States for a quick look at the situation here. Most would say tyranny is not as routinized here as it is in Syria. We have fewer secret police per capita. We still have a greater degree of free speech. Does that suggest a sliding scale, where the more tyrannical a government is, the less justifiable its efforts to defend itself against opponents, and the more free a people, the more right the government has to protect itself? I would say no, that if a government is not replaceable, it is not legitimate. If a persistent majority wants to replace its government, it has a right to do so.

That argument presumes, of course, that the persistent majority does not use violence, and that it does not plan to impose some form of tyranny on everyone. At this point you might say, “Well, politics doesn’t work that way. Violence always lurks underneath political action, and groups that want to take away your freedom always threaten the order and security everyone craves. That’s why government’s right to defend itself has to be protected. Take away that right, and you have Hobbes’ war of all against all before you know it.” Jefferson would say that every generation has a right to choose its own government.

That brings us to the supposed tradeoff between order and freedom, but I don’t see any profit in that question for the United States right now. It has become government’s excuse for doing whatever it wants. When government says it has to take away your freedom in order to protect you, you and your neighbors are in trouble. Only an illegitimate government that is up to no good would say that. Your protector has become your enemy.

We can say that with assurance, because freedom is the only guarantor of security people have ever known. No unfree state has ever been secure, within or without. Unfree people are constantly vulnerable to threats. They cannot protect themselves, nor can they organize to reduce their vulnerability. Their state of bondage makes them victims in every respect, completely unable to help themselves or to resist the powers that have forced them into such a situation. Ask a slave if he feels secure. Ask a free person if he feels threatened.

Honor Your Oath

Now we return to Oath Keepers and their message. The organization is not the same as Promise Keepers, which brings together men who want to help each other fulfill their responsibilities to their families. Oath Keepers invites veterans, former police officers, and other public servants to defend their consitutional freedoms, together. When Oath Keepers issues its plea, Honor Your Oath!, it refers to the oath that members of the armed services take at the time they enlist:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

It is similar to the oath that presidents take at their inaugural ceremony:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Neither of these oaths suggests what to do when the executive branch of our government clearly becomes an enemy of the Constitution. The president is in a particularly tough spot, when the agencies he leads persistently and flagrantly subvert the Constitution. The only way to uphold his oath is to weaken, resist, and even destroy the agencies and their power. When John F. Kennedy merely stated his intention to resist their power, these agencies regarded him as a traitor and an enemy of the state. We know the result.

Service members face a less immediate but no less difficult dilemma. While in combat, they follow the orders of their superior officers. They’ve promised to do that, and warfare requires it. When they’re not in combat, and especially after they have left the service, their priority is clear enough. Their obligation is to the Consitution, to protect it from enemies, foreign and domestic. In that way, their obligations do not differ from those of any other citizen. The only difference is that they once took an oath to do so.

I’m a veteran and a citizen. People who read The Jeffersonian know that I write about citizenship a lot. I did not think when I took my oath of service in the Navy that I would write words like these. Our government has become an enemy of the Constitution. Our obligation to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, calls us to see our own government, the executive branch in particular, as the Constitution’s primary enemy. No foreign enemy presents a threat so potent or immediate.

Edward Snowden’s disclosures, and the executive branch’s response to those disclosures, illustrate how weak a bulwark our Constitution has become. Bradley Manning is in prison for espionage because he placed his obligation to the Consitution before obedience to the executive branch. Edward Snowden is in exile for the same reason. When they found themselves in a difficult place, forced to choose which part of their oath to honor, they chose the first part. Defend the Constitution. As citizens, they could not do otherwise.

We have to follow their example. The executive branch cannot put us all in prison. It cannot empty the country and force every one of us into exile. It can only come after us one at a time. It can, however, make the whole country into a prison camp. If it accomplishes that – and Snowden’s disclosures clearly show how it works toward that goal – we’ll be forced into the same position as the Syrian rebels. We’ll have to submit, or fight with armed force. That is not the outcome we want.

Heed the warning. Honor your obligations as citizens. The ads in the Washington DC metro stations show the words HONOR YOUR OATH in large, bold capital letters. They represent a warning and a plea, a request, and unfortunately for these times, even come across as a command. It’s hard to communicate urgency any other way. We’re unsure how to help, except to disclose what we know. We don’t know yet what efforts will prove most effective. I write this blog, but I can’t go into exile. Almost all of us have similar, perplexing situations. 

We do know a few general principles at this point. We have to find good leadership. We have to plan how to resist without violence. We have to find effective ways to cooperate. No movement to resist government power can succeed without these three. If you take away one of them, you have impotence, infighting and disorganization, bad outcomes, loss of morale, and eventual defeat. If you keep all three requirements in view, you can achieve an apparent miracle – victory without fighting.

Remember the wisdom of Sun Tzu in The Art of War: the goal in all conflict is to win without a fight, to cause the enemy to collapse without use of force. These principles are timeless. These principles apply to the Oath Keepers call to defend our Constitution by exposing the executive branch’s secrets.

No person one hundred years from now ought to wonder how we could lose our republic and our freedoms so suddenly, how we could wake up and find ourselves in prison. The prison, with its tools of surveillance, dependence and intimidation, along with its culture of fear and hopelessness, takes some time to build. It is not yet complete, but we cannot mistake its outlines. The gates are not yet locked. These signs and tells surround us, as do the warnings. Read the signs of the times. A storm is coming. Be ready.


I went running after I wrote the article above, and had some interesting follow-on thoughts. The Oath Keepers ad above, together with their website, seem over-the-top bold, provacative, and professionally done. Their ads are posted near government sites like the Pentagon and the White House. It made me wonder, could Oath Keepers be an outfit designed to flush out people the feds regard as traitors? A spook might think, we can persuade  government employees to expose unconstitutional activities, then nab them before they get away, as Snowden did.

I had no evidence that Oath Keepers was anything of the sort. But it’s significant that mildly paranoid musings like that should come to mind as I trotted along. We have reached a point where no one can trust anyone any longer. In the film, The Lives of Others, a woman betrays her own mate to the secret police, then ends her life out of guilt. This atomization, a sundering of every human tie, suits the feds just fine. The inability to trust anyone greatly assists people who already hold power.

Interestingly, Cass Sunstein, a former advisor to President Obama for public information, has advocated the government undertake coordinated disinformation campaigns with exactly that end in mind. In an essay called Conspiracy Theories, he said that the feds could infiltrate anti-government groups cognitively: sow confusion, distrust and uncertainty so as to make these groups weak and ineffective. It was amazing to see a government official openly advocate exactly the techniques perfected and used so effectively in totalitarian states.

Well, we still have Google, and we still have the Internet. When I returned home, checked out Oath Keepers. The article below, which contains basic background information about the group, appeared near the top of the search results. The article confirms Oath Keepers is real, not intended to flush people out. Those ads may seem a bit out there, but they don’t come from a government press.

People refer to the fever swamps of the Internet, where paranoia and conspiracy theories thrive. Books like The United States of Paranoia argue these social and political phenomena have been evident in American culture for a long time. Significantly, a general climate of distrust and fear perfectly suits a government that wants to enhance its power and reach.

Citizens want to obey officials who claim lawful authority. They recognize the danger of lawlessness. They don’t want to be in trouble with the states. They are slow to rebel, slow to organize for rebellion, and slow to act when they see government do things it should not do. They might voice disapproval, but they refrain from any action that could get them into some kind of trouble.

Moreover, when citizens mistrust each other – as well as their government, which controls so much information – they can’t tell what’s false and what’s true. They can’t tell what’s legal and what’s not. They can’t tell who is a friend and who is not. When citizens reach that state of confusion and doubt, they become helpless and impotent. Society does not even exist any more. In that paralyzed, fearful state of mind, no one can resist the criminals who enforce what they say is the law. The nameless, all-seeing wielders of power in 1984 could declare something true one day, declare the same thing false the next, then execute people as enemies of the state for holding false beliefs. That’s terror.

Related Article

March 9, 2009: Anti-Government ‘Oath Keepers’ Organization Launched at Pro-Militia Rally, History Commons

Related Book

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, by Jesse Walker