The year is 1791. A group of Pennsylvania distillers, aggravated by the young federal government’s new taxes on whiskey, took up arms and refused to pay. Throughout towns on the frontier, the distillers and their allies violently intimidated tax collectors and other government agents in an attempt to prevent them from collecting the levy. In 1794, the arrival of a U.S. Marshal sparked the invasion of the estate of tax inspector General John Neville by over 500 armed distillers.
In response, George Washington, the sitting president, raised an army of 13,000 men that he intended to lead personally against the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion.” When news of the approaching federal forces reached the distillers, they disbanded and subsequently paid their taxes.
This is the proper way to deal with armed insurrection. One might even argue that President Washington was too restrained in his actions. It took three years of standoff, multiple attempts to negotiate peacefully and a brazen attack on a federal official’s land before the government took action. But once they took action, the results were swift and positive.
Today, we are faced with yet another act of rebellion, this time in Harney County, Ore., where a group of armed militias (composed mainly of out-of-staters) has taken over a federal wildlife preserve and threatened to resist violently any government attempt to dislodge them.
It is surprising how little media coverage this act of armed insurrection has garnered, especially compared to the non-stop coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson over the past two summers. There are sporadic reports from Harney County, but for the most part it has focused on the more trivial aspects of the situation. It made me smile when I read that the co-founder of Cards Against Humanity sent the protesters a box of dildos and a 50-gallon drum of lube after they asked their supporters to send them food, but that is in no way the most important element of this story.
What is important is that armed militias (some of which have well-documented anti-Semitic and racist philosophies) have overrun a county that does not welcome them, occupied federal lands on the grounds that the national government has no authority, disregarded orders from the lawfully elected sheriff and have faced practically no resistance.
Ben Carson refers to the Islamic State as an “existential threat” to the United States. The doctor, along with several other presidential candidates, believes that the U.S. is in danger of being fundamentally destroyed or altered beyond recognition, at the hands of ISIS. While it is true that ISIS is a pressing security issue that merits the full attention of the United States, there is an even more insidious, and far more “existential” threat than the Islamic State. There is no better example of this threat than the thugs and goons in Harney County.
There are people in this nation who do not recognize the authority of our elected government. Whether they hide behind the mantra of “states’ rights,” “sovereign citizen“ or “true patriots,” they all seek the same thing — and that is the total dismantling of centralized authority in the United States. Much like the original Whiskey Rebellion protestors and the Confederate States of America, they often frame themselves as the true heirs of the values of the American Revolution. This is true in a certain way. Much like the distillers and the confederates they are rebels, and their end goal is revolution. They have fundamental disagreements with the structure of our government and they intend to use armed force to affect the change they wish to see. This is not a good thing.
There is a reason the United States has lasted for so long, and that reason is in many ways the political structure enshrined in the Constitution. It is not a perfect document, hence the 27 major additions and countless more reinterpretations, but there is an established editing and review process that has kept our nation stable for almost 250 years. The protesters in Harney wish to change this. They, much more so than ISIS, represent an existential threat to the United States we know and love.
There is another group of people in our nation who have a long-standing (and infinitely more justified) opposition to many of the systems of our society. For comparison’s sake, let us see the government’s response to this group. It was not even a year ago that the Baltimore Police Department’s actions left a young black man dead in the back of a police wagon. In the aftermath of that tragedy, when the city’s residents began vigorously protesting the mishandling of that particular case, as well as deep-seated racial biases against certain communities by the government and police, Governor Larry Hogan mobilized the National Guard to “restore order” to the city. The result was camouflaged armored vehicles patrolling the streets. The result was a Gestapo-style arrest of a peaceful protestor broadcast live on CNN. The result was a repeat of the calamity that was Ferguson, Mo., the previous year.
What does it say about our country when a black child not even twelve years old, with a toy gun tucked into his pants, is shot onsite by police, while a group of disgruntled middle-aged white men with real guns that they point at police officers are left be? When the black students of Kent State University protested outside of their dormitory, police had no trouble firing 140 rounds into the crowd in the space of 30 seconds, killing two and injuring others. Why is it that the police in Oregon and the federal agencies involved aren’t using force to dislodge the militias in Harney County. Certainly sworn enemies of the federal government present more of a danger than protesting college students.
All this is not to say that the FBI or the National Guard should charge in, guns blazing, in an attempt to remove the militiamen. History tells us that strategy is flawed, and memories of the bungled handling of similar situations in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho is no doubt causing the government to act conservatively. Much of the time, though, it seems that they are not even acting conservatively, but simply not acting at all. Supporters still have access to the refuge and can drop off food. The occupiers still have communication with their networks outside of the refuge. Guns are still being aimed at law enforcement.
When George Washington finally began marching towards Pennsylvania at the head of his 13,000-man army, the rebels revealed their true natures and turned tail. By the time the army got there, there were only a few straggling protesters left to arrest. The men in Harney today claim to be the true inheritors of the values of the founding fathers, but it is clear from his decisive response to the Whiskey Rebellion that the Founding Father himself would have no tolerance for such banality.