Radley Balko points out that former president Bill Clinton has an ugly editorial in the New York Times. It’s the anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. Clinton goes through the motions of mourning their deaths, but then he moves on to casting blame:
Finally, we should never forget what drove the bombers, and how they justified their actions to themselves. They took to the ultimate extreme an idea advocated in the months and years before the bombing by an increasingly vocal minority: the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them.
Clinton is, as usual, being careful with his words. He never quite comes out and accuses the “increasingly vocal minority” of causing the Oklahome City bombing, but there’s a clear implication that those of us who question big government are somehow culpable.
As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.
No. That’s dead wrong.
I assume responsibility for what I say and what I do. But my words have no power to compel other people, so I’m not responsible for what other people do upon hearing them. And I’m certainly not going to assume responsibility for what happens when my words reach the “delirious” and the “unhinged.” It would be foolish for Americans to censor their own voices in our democracy out of fear of how some unknown madman might respond.
Civic virtue can include harsh criticism, protest, even civil disobedience. But not violence or its advocacy. That is the bright line that protects our freedom. It has held for a long time, since President George Washington called out 13,000 troops in response to the Whiskey Rebellion.
Would that be the same George Washington who just a few years before had lead the armed insurrection against the British government? An insurrection which started, on this very day, in 1775 when local militia members killed 73 British soldiers in the battles of Lexington and Concord?
It’s assinine for someone like Bill Clinton, who for eight years commanded the most powerful army in the world, to say that violence has no place in civic virtue. If violence can never be virtuous, then why do we have a Department of Defense? Why do we arm our police officers? Why does our government have within its grasp, the power to kill millions with the push of a button?
The answer is that although violence is terrible, it is sometimes also the only way to protect ourselves against those who would do violence against us. In our civilized world, we have agreed to limit the use of violence, wherever possible, by empowering a democratic government to act violently against those who threaten us. This near-monopoly on the use of violence is the defining characteristic of government. George Washington understood this well:
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
Which is precisely why our government is the single greatest threat to our freedom. What other threats could there be? The Russians? The Chinese? North Korea? Criminal gangs? Deceitful bankers? None of those threats compare to the harm that could come if those who should serve us try instead to become our masters.
Back to Clinton:
Fifteen years ago, the line was crossed in Oklahoma City. In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma City, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again.
No problem. I’m just a blogger. All I’ve got are words. I have no blood on my hands.
Bill Clinton cannot say the same. It was his administration that sent the ATF into the Branch Davidian compound to start a violent confrontation where none existed before. He commanded the army that killed a thousand people in Mogadishu in 1993. He launched cruise missles into Afghanistan and the Sudan.
Whether you believe Clinton was right or wrong to use force when he did, it’s absurd that a man who has held the power to kill and used it should try to cast blame on those of us who only use words.