May You Live In Interesting Times

Thought to be a curse of ancient Chinese origin, the title of this essay is appropriate for life in America today. A new report by the Pew Research Center is in the news today — just the latest data showing that most believe our government is broken, echoing results from a similar CNN poll conducted in February. But you don’t need poll numbers to notice the downward spiral we find ourselves in — simply watch the news. I’m not sure that the frequency of these incidents is increasing (although it seems like it to me), but they are certainly becoming better documented (thanks to the internet) and more widely known.

A decade ago, one could point to a handful of hard-core anti-government episodes (Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City bombing) that were so conspicuous, each had become iconic in its own right. Now they seem to happen so often, that no single incident has enough time to etch itself in our collective consciousness before the next media frenzy begins:

  • Feb 18, 2010 – Andrew Joseph Stack flies his Piper Dakota airplane into an Austin, Texas office building housing the Internal Revenue Service, killing himself and one IRS worker inside. Stack left behind a manifesto expressing his anger towards the IRS and the government in general.
  • Mar 4, 2010 – Two police officers were shot and wounded inside the Pentagon subway station in Washington, DC by John Patrick Bedell. Bedell had a history of mental health problems, but also a healthy dislike of government.
  • Mar 27, 2010 – Members of a self-described “christian warrior” group called Hutaree were arrested in Michigan for plotting to kill police officers. The group has been known to advocate anti-government doctrines.
  • Apr 2, 2010 – More than 30 state governors received letters from a group called Guardians of the Free Republics demanding that they resign from office, or be removed. The Guardians are devoted to dismantling goverment.
  • Apr 6-7, 2010 – Within a day of each other, two men, Charles Wilson and Gregory Giusti, were arrested for issuing threats against their respective members of Congress.
  • Apr 15, 2010 – And of course the most vocal and omnipresent anti-government group is the burgeoning Tea Party movement, which concluded a coast-to-coast bus tour last week on Tax Day with a rally in Washington, DC to protest government oppression, in general, and taxation in particular.

Now these are just the stories that made national headlines. The assumption is that there are many, many more similar stories at the local level that go unnoticed. On February 7, 2008, for example, the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood was rocked by a shooting spree during a city council meeting. The gunman, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, finally had enough of what he considered harrassment by local government officals and killed several of them. There is also the tale of Jerry Andres, who recently invoked the memory of the Kirkwood shooting when he made his own angry visit to another St. Louis area city hall. Author and columnist Vin Suprynowicz devoted an entire book, called The Ballad of Carl Drega, to documenting a number of these same kinds of local stories across the country.

It is easy to dismiss all of the actors in these stories as “wingnuts” with mental disorders. But that simply isn’t the case. Every person has a breaking point, and the tragedy is that the rest of us cannot relate to these stories because we have never been pushed to our own breaking points — but these individuals have. Now whether the oppression or harrassment is real or imagined is left for history to record, but it brings to mind the quote by a former Secretary of State:

The evils of tyranny are rarely seen but by him who resists it.
— John Hay, 1872

What all of these people have in common is their desire and their willingness to resist what they perceive as tyranny. Their courage to take a stand should be respected, even if they are misguided, or their methods are despicable. So does the increase in the frequency of these stories mean that more and more people are saying “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” or is it simply a trend that the mainstream media is temporarily willing to indulge? Needless to say, my hope is that it is the former.


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