There's been a paradigm shift in the last year that is at best interesting and at worst chilling. It has to do with the pervasive anger, often ratcheted up to rage, exhibited by disparate groups that appear to have no connection. Yet all of them share closely held anti-government convictions with a subtext of paranoia.
Last weekend, as the door was closing on the yearlong debate over health care, crowds, specifically the Tea Party, gathered outside the nation's capital for a "Code Red" rally intended to derail the proceedings. Many carried the now familiar signs ("Socialism," Obama portrayed as Hitler, and so on) chanting, "kill the bill." Republican members of Congress stood on the capital building's second-story balcony holding up a yellow flag that said, "Don't Tread on Me," in a show of solidarity.
As Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the Finance Committee and openly gay, walked through the capital's wide foyer, protestors yelled homophobic names. As Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), civil rights leader in the '60s, walked up the capital steps to vote, racial slurs were called out and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was spat on. Members of Congress received death threats and their home state offices were vandalized, windows broken with rocks and bricks. One brick had a note attached: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."
Who are these people? And what are their underlying grievances that provoke such deep and abiding wrath? Who they're not is simply an ad hoc group of Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest. There is a thread that connects the Tea Party to other fringe organizations that are, since the election, experiencing a resurgence.
Perhaps the one belief shared by these groups — tea baggers, militias, conspiracists, friends of liberty, oath keepers, survivalists, conservative talk radio and television, birthers, patriots, libertarians, secessionists — is that the federal government is the problem, not the solution.
And demonizing the government seems to be having an effect. In a recent CNN poll, 37 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans believe that the "federal government poses a threat to the rights of citizens."
For some it is an article of faith that the government is planning to truncate the rights and freedoms expressed in the Constitution (recall that health care reform was a big government takeover) and therefore a national struggle of some kind is imminent. Be prepared, they counsel. Lay in caches of ammo and food. Get ready.
This is a dark political fantasy, and it has created countless permutations wherein the rhetoric sounds all too familiar.
As reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "At a meeting in Pensacola, Fla., a retired FBI agent, Ted Gunderson, tells a gathering of anti-government 'Patriots' that the federal government has set up 1,000 internment camps across the country and is storing 30,000 guillotines and a half-million caskets in Atlanta"¦ for the day the government declares martial law and moves to round up or kill American dissenters."
Next month, on April 19, patriots, militia members and Second Amendment enthusiasts will gather in Washington to argue that now is the time to be forewarned and forearmed. Many will support "open-carry" laws and be "strapped." April 19 has great significance for these groups, for that is the day of the Waco, Texas, conflagration as well as the Oklahoma bombing two years later, both touchstone moments.
Meanwhile, militias, from Idaho to New Jersey and Michigan to Florida, are suiting up in camouflage, honing paramilitary skills and preparing for that day when the government will impose on America a "New World Order."
But conspiracy theorists are not limited to the militias and backwoods bubbas. There are the conspiracists who embrace the idea that "9/11 was an inside job," meaning it was planned and executed by the government. At a recent convention of "truthers" in Los Angeles, engineers, architects and aviation experts insist that the NYC Twin Towers could not have fallen in a "pancaking," "controlled" fashion unless charges had been planted in the structures. Why? The answer depends on who you ask, though all believe it was the feds.
In truth there is less than six degrees of separation between most of these groups and their anti-government rhetoric is increasing. The need to construct a straw man to rage against is not a new dynamic; however, in a land with some 200 million guns and dark, apocalyptic fantasists sowing their seeds on the Internet, we should all be concerned.
The tree of liberty needs to be watered, not with the blood of patriots (as some now insist), but with voters at the polls and an ongoing civil discourse, all buttressed by the belief that we are a land of laws not individuals and elections mean something.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings.