Recently, like most Americans that attempt to follow news of a sociopolitical nature, I have become aware of stories that report on the phenomenon of various right-leaning militia groups forming in the United States. Loosely affiliated with Tea Party and 9/12 Movement ideals, these groups seem to have especially attracted coverage in the wake of the controversial health care reform bill that passed and was signed into law by President Obama just weeks ago. Not unsurprisingly given the polarized state of our nation's politics, the narrative that emerges about these groups depends on what news source you are watching, listening to, or reading.
On MSNBC, the general position tends to be that anyone that has ever so much as looked at a gun is a racist religious fanatic that wants to kill you and your family. Meanwhile, politicians and pundits on the right have rushed to rationalize even the most extreme statements from those in these organizations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find balanced portrayals of the individuals involved in these movements in the media as such individuals are nearly always portrayed as either dangerous psychopaths or as uncomplicated defenders of the American way - with little room for nuance on either side. I believe that the situation is more complicated than that and that we owe it to ourselves as Americans, regardless of our political beliefs, to examine the motivation for those who have decided to align themselves with the milita cause.
First of all, it is important to note that both left-wing and right-wing forces in this country have an occasional history of violence. On the left, the terrorist activities of the Weather Underground in the 1960s provide an example. On the right, terrorist acts like the recent murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder and the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 are prominent cases in point when it comes to extremists that turn violent. For reasons such as this, it is important that when organizations or persons of any political stripe begin espousing violent rhetoric, we as citizens are right to look on them with, at the very least, some measure of concern. History has shown that these groups and individuals can at times prove to be a legitimate threat to our personal and collective rights to life, liberty, and property. However, the question then becomes "When should concern turn into government action?" At what point should surveillance and circumscription of civil liberties be the prescription for such persons and groups as opposed to a last resort option lingering on the back of our nation's collective mind?
At the outset of any discussion of this issue it is important to understand that for many individuals, there has been a worrying erosion of Second Amendment rights going on in this nation for quite some time. Most of these individuals are not particularly prone to violence but they do share some not uncommon concerns about a fundamental Constitutional right being watered down to the point of irrelevance. (Perhaps the best analogy I can think of from a left-wing perspective is the way that despite Roe v. Wade guaranteeing abortion rights, these rights have been gradually stripped away by lawmakers so that they are in some ways toothless.) For some, they situate this trend in the broader context of increased government intrusion into our society. Many of these individuals are fiscal conservatives who take a libertarian view of government and are concerned about the right to self-defense so that they may be able to protect themselves from both government injustice as well as from other people who may mean them harm. In fact, I have even heard some with this point of view draw parallels between women's reproductive rights, civil rights for LGBT people and racial minorities, and the right to bear arms as a series of important individual rights that all must be in place for us to live in a free society. Granted, this is not the most common rhetoric among gun rights advocates but nor is it unheard of.
Nonetheless, what for some remains a legitimate commitment to the right to self-defense is for others an excuse to involve themselves in what is not unlikely to turn into violent extremism. For individuals already predisposed to violence or mental illness, the militia movement may provide them with a ready made set of grievances against the government and the training necessary to enact violent fantasies against their fellow human beings. The Southern Poverty Law Center currently tracks militia organizations and reports that within the last two years fifty new militia groups have formed across the nation. Which of these entities provides an acceptable outlet for individuals to learn to defend themselves and which of these entities contains the seeds for violence against others remains to be seen. It is obvious that some of the acts of vandalism and threats against the lives of specific lawmakers that occurred in the wake of the healthcare bill's passage should be investigated and taken seriously. Those responsible for these acts should be held accountable by the criminal justice system.
In the way of policy prescription, I would close this piece by saying that it is still important to remember that holding controversial and even extreme political, social, and/or religious views is not and should not be a crime. Owning a weapon and getting together with others to learn to use that weapon (even amidst a backdrop of heated political rhetoric) is not and should not be a crime either. It is probably for the best that groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-governmental organization, tracks and keeps an eye on these groups lest some of them begin to present a threat to others. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that when it comes to any radical organizations - including but not limited to very conservative Muslim groups, extreme anti-abortion protesters, and some of the more fiery of the militia groups - it is vital for all of our civil liberties that officials err on the side of protection of the rights of persons with controversial positions. Leave it to NGOs like the SPLC to monitor these groups, to citizens to be vigilant and honest with themselves about what they're seeing when these groups begin to cross the line into incitements to violence, and to our local, state, and federal governments to step in promptly as soon as (but not a moment before) it becomes clear that these groups pose a threat to the life, liberty, and property of persons or towards government institutions. In a free society the state must be neutral towards the political positions of private groups and persons or else we begin to stop living in a society in which any of us can count on the protection of our rights on a day to day basis.