To get a teaching job in the 1970s I had to sign a Loyalty Oath. Oaths usually included something like this: “I do not believe in the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence…. I am not a member of any organization or party which believes and/or teaches directly or indirectly the overthrow of the Government of United States by force.” I’m not writing here to defend such oaths or my decision to sign one. (In 1961 the Supreme Court unanimously voted in support of my favorite junior high teacher, David W. Cramp, Jr., in his claim that Florida’s loyalty oath was unconstitutional.)
Back then right-wing citizens feared that individuals and organizations (i.e. communists) wanted to overthrow the government of the United States. Today they’re—surely I’m not hearing this correctly—are they actually claiming the right to overthrow the U.S. government? A tyrannical government, they say. That’s why the second amendment guarantees that they can own guns. As many as they want. With as much killing power as what the military has access to. Like in a Hollywood movie, True Patriots will take on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
But who decides when the government has become tyrannical? “Thus always to tyrants,” John Wilkes Booth is said to have shouted in Latin when he killed President Lincoln. (Timothy McVeigh wore a t-shirt with that logo when he was arrested.) Booth couldn’t accept the fact that history was moving the country in a direction different than what he wanted. The terrorist cell he was part of lived under the illusion that through its efforts the Confederacy and the southern way of life would return to the way it had been.
These days we’re hearing a lot of talk about good people with guns and bad people with guns. As if telling the difference between them is all that easy. Booth would have been counted among the good men. He was described as being from the “best of society.” He was chivalrous and charming. Likewise I’m sure that those convinced today of the need to fight a tyrannical government are also good people.
There will always be citizens who don’t agree with the decisions of a democratically elected government. But if the Civil War taught us anything, it was that violence among ourselves will not solve the issues that separate us.