As a boy that grew up scampering through the sage brush on the hills above the school, when we stopped for a bathroom break on one of our early camping trips, my first thought was to duck under the barbed-wire fence and wander in the woods it protected. I was tame enough to check first with my mother, who drew my attention to the sign:
Violators will be shot on sight
“Don’t they have to give you a warning first?”
“That is the warning,” my father observed.
Looking up and down the lonely road, I thought, “But what if their car broke down and they need help?”
It was my first collision with the thought that property ownership trumped human life, and I was a little shaken by the experience.
I don’t see the signs much in my area any more – perhaps because most of the agriculture and ranching has disappeared. But technology may also have something to do with it: with helicopters and radio trackers, it’s probably pretty hard for cattle rustlers to disappear into the wilderness, and aerial crop dusting probably dissuades most casual fruit pickers. The spread of drone aircraft will also make easier to bring thieves to justice without risk of a confrontation.
It was only later that I learned that these signs were also posted frequently by those engaged in illegal activity. The classic image is the moonshine distiller or hillbilly sending off the “revenooer.” But I was confronted by another case when working on a friend’s deck up in Redding one summer. A piercing scream of terror came from the house across the fence – but there was the sign. None of the locals so much as turned a head in concern. I guess it wasn’t the first time.
The Bundy Family now camped out at the Wildlife Refuge in Oregon says that they are “defending their way of life.” One of their number, finding himself in the minority in a discussion of violent confrontation, went out to make a stand in the cold, observing that he had grown up with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face, and he would rather die than spend a single day in jail. On hearing this, I thought of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. A defense industry engineer, laid off and denied visitation rights to his child, trades in weapons in an escalating rampage, finally being gunned down before his daughter.
The Sheriff in Oregon has asked the invaders to leave, observing that they don’t have the right to come in with their guns and tell them how to live. But I wonder if anybody has asked the Bundy’s to consider what would happen if we all chose to act as they did. Will they take cause with the older software developer, defaulting on his mortgage because ageism makes it difficult to find employment?
The scariest exhibition, however, was the Alabama legislator who avowed on national television last night that the reason we have remained a democracy is because our government is afraid to confront its armed citizens. Comparing the M-1 Abrams tank and fighter jets to the hand-held weaponry in the homes of our citizen militias, we might draw a comparison with the armed knights of the middle age and every farmer with a pitchfork. Comparable parity of weaponry in the Middle Ages did not deter tyranny, nor does it do so today.
The Founders designed an institutional system that pitted the three branches of government against each other in a federation of states with their own security services. This institutional competition was designed to prevent any one branch or level of government from being able to impose its will on citizens. That the legislator suffers from a such a deep misunderstanding of how our constitutional system safeguards our liberties is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this situation, particularly because it has often been the Federal Government that has stepped in to ensure the rights of those intimidated by state and local authorities.
Devolving coercive power down to the citizens seems to promise only that those that relish and glorify violence will be able to terrorize those that don’t. We’ve worked long and hard to escape that condition. Why give in to it now?