All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

Beyond the Pale

A Purely Negative, Anti-Governmental Focus Is Bankrupt

Mr. Bidinotto is a long-time contributor to Reader’s Digest and The Freeman, and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

Those of us who cherish freedom may disagree about many things, yet still consider ourselves allies. But if our positive philosophy of individual rights and liberty is to survive, we must distance ourselves from anyone whose aim is to undermine the rule of law upon which rights and liberty depend.

In the early 1970s, I joined several organizations whose avowed purpose was to limit taxation and halt governmental violations of individual rights. One day, the leader of one of the groups leaned forward in a gleefully conspiratorial manner, and confided: “My goal is to make people cynical about government.”

I was disturbed by his negative focus. Cynicism, I knew, was a destructive emotion; mere “anti-govenmentalism” was an empty substitute for a positive political philosophy and constructive agenda. I understood even then that hostility toward government was not the same thing as defending individual rights.

If anyone still needs to have that lesson driven home, let him consider the atrocity in Oklahoma City last April 19. That horrifying event constitutes the dead end of cynical, mindless anti-governmentalism.

When evidence mounted that the Oklahoma killers were homegrown, most of us were stunned. How could Americans do this to fellow Americans? we wondered.

We have since learned something about the suspects, their associates, their sympathizers—and their motives. We have learned that the prime suspects are alienated loners and losers—socially marginalized and rootless men, with thwarted personal ambitions and spoiled private lives.

Philosopher Eric Hoffer once described these sorts as perfect candidates to become fanatical, nihilistic “True Believers”: individuals who, unable to fulfill constructive roles in society, are drawn to hate groups, anti-social cults, and revolutionary crusades. As Hoffer explained it, such “causes” provide them with excuses for their personal frustrations and failings. Self-hatred can then be projected outward. Certain groups, or society and its institutions, become their scapegoats; tortuous socio-political rationalizations are concocted to fuel their fantasies of “revenge.”

These misfits thrill to the grandiose delusion that social institutions, such as government agencies, have specially targeted them for destruction. This not only explains their own failures; it also inflates their sense of importance, while simultaneously granting them permission to strike back in “self-defense.” Lost in nihilistic fantasies, such malcontents—like their left-wing precursors of the 1960s—fancy themselves as “soldiers” at war with American society. That is why they can target innocent citizens without qualm … why one suspect gave officials only his name, rank, and serial number.

Hoffer’s explanation is not only consistent with what we know of those arrested, but also with the statements of their excuse-making sympathizers. Within days of the blast—and despite mounting evidence against the native-born suspects—leaders of one private militia group speculated publicly that the real perpetrators were “the Japanese.” Not to be outdone, others voiced suspicions that the killers were actually sinister U.S. government agents provocateurs, who had blown up their own government building solely to provoke a public backlash against private gun ownership and militia groups.

Some commentators, instead of condemning the bombing as pure murder, felt obliged to couple muted criticisms of the atrocity with excuse-making for the perpetrators. While mumbling perfunctory condolences to the families of the slaughtered and injured, they also suggested that the perpetrators were probably just decent, patriotic Americans, provoked to act in self-defense against a “tyrannical” federal government. The mass murders in Oklahoma City, they explained, were intended to avenge alleged governmental “mass murders” during the 1993 Waco, Texas, tragedy, and the 1992 shootout with the Randall Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

The gist of their “explanation”? Government interventions and improprieties were somehow driving otherwise upright citizens to desperate acts of violent reprisal.

What, ultimately, is the difference between the “left-wing” argument that common criminals are “driven” to steal and kill due to past social or economic repression, and this “right-wing” argument that the Oklahoma terrorists were “driven” to bomb a day-care center due to past governmental oppression?

I confess that any subtle distinctions between these two camps continue to elude me. Call me simplistic, but as I see it, the only results in both cases are the bloodied bodies of innocents. Even if innocent children in Waco, Texas, had been deliberately murdered (which they weren’t), how could that atrocity be set right by the murder of additional innocent children in Oklahoma City, or anywhere else? Need it be pointed out that one does not avenge the violation of individual rights by violating individual rights?

The cowardly Oklahoma bombing demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of a purely negative, “anti-governmental” focus. Whether motivated and rationalized by cynicism, hatred, paranoia, philosophical anarchism, or conspiracy theories, attacking government per se only undermines the rule of law–and is thus a carte blanche for the arbitrary, private initiation of force.

Exaggeration? In the aftermath of the bombing, one talk show host felt obliged to instruct his listeners in the fine points of how to shoot federal agents during raids. Another, attributing the Oklahoma blast to “CIA contractors,” told an audience that “what they won’t allow us at the ballot box can be won at the bullet box.” Meanwhile, a militia group out West has been threatening to hang any judges or other public officials who fail to uphold the Constitution–as they interpret it.

Does anyone really believe that individual rights would be more scrupulously observed by such self-appointed vigilantes than by the officials they denounce? (Personally, given a choice, I’ll gladly take my chances with the BATF.)

Our nation’s Founders were not anti-intellectual opponents of government as such. Through our Constitution, they in fact established one with the positive aim of preserving and protecting individual rights. That’s because they understood the vital connection between individual rights and the rule of law. Undermine the latter, and you jeopardize the former.

We in America do not live under pure laissez-faire; far from it. But we also do not live under tyranny. To contend otherwise trivializes the full horror of real tyranny. Here, we can write, speak, and vote freely. Regulated we are, but not enslaved.

As long as we have the freedom to address imperfections, even evils, in our political system with ballots, there is no justification for resorting to bullets. And there is never any justification for deliberately violating the rights of the innocent–nor in excusing the violators. Such is beyond the pale. []