From the beginning, we Americans really haven’t been much for keeping things civil when someone tells us something we don’t like.
It’s kind of our brand.
We tarred and feathered tax collectors. We tarred and feathered investigators who came to find out who tarred and feathered the tax collectors. We threw two-million dollars of tea into Boston Harbor because we didn’t want to pay a tax on it. And when our colonial masters stuck their nose in our business too much without allowing colonial representation in their Parliament, we went to war and quit the Kingdom.
It didn’t stop there though.
We started tarring and feathering American tax collectors collecting tax on whiskey. And when the chippy Appalachian borderlanders finally rebelled against that tax, George Washington himself, as president, had to ride out with an army and put down the rebellion.
And yet, we persisted.
Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cain on the floor of the Senate because he insulted his kinsman in a pro-abolition speech. Brooks was reelected to office again afterwards.
The man on our five-dollar bill was shot in the back of the head and killed. The man on the $10 bill was shot and killed by the the sitting Vice President of the United States at the time. The man on the $20 bill shot and killed a man in a duel because that man accused him of cheating on a horse race bet. Five of our last 30 presidents were shot while in office. If Squeaky Fromme’s gun didn’t malfunction an arm’s lengthy away from Gerald Ford in 1975, it would have been six. Two candidates that participated in the 1968 presidential election were also shot. As was our most prominent Civil Rights leader.
There were 2,500 politically motivated domestic bombings in America in an 18-month period spanning 1971 and 1972. Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara was once thrown off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry; not, asked to get off, mind you, literally thrown into the water by an anti-war protestor.
After calls for gun control in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, the leader of the national organization that protects our ability to own weapons, a famous actor who played Moses in a movie, once told the Vice President of the United States, “I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’
33 of our 50 states have “stand your ground” laws that make it legal to respond to a credible threat of violence with an act of violence. One does not have to walk away. One does not have to look for a door. One can hit back harder than one was hit until there’s nothing left to hit.
It is after all, your ground.
It’s fair to say that America is a nation of laws. And it’s also fair to say that the way we best solve our societal disagreements is within the bounds of them. Years of war taught me a thing or two about what happens when the rule of law fails. The arc of human violence is long. It does not bend towards justice though. It bends towards whoever is better at violence. So, one should be careful not to mistake what I’ve said for justification of violence of any sort. It’s not and never will be.
Violence aside, the notion that responding to civil disagreement in any other way than with polite, professional discourse is “not our way” hasn’t paid much attention to our ways. Saying so is a political tactic that urges those less invested in an issue to side with the established authority in service to avoiding inconvenience. Segregationists said it about civil rights organizers. The oligarchs said it about labor organizers. And the Brits said it about our good patriots when they tossed their polite tea into Boston Harbor. Just like the less than polite American response to anything at all that smells like tyranny or infringement on rights, the response from the establishment to just behave isn’t new.
As we unruly Americans move forward into what is now and will surely be for some time, a politically divided and turbulent nation, it’s worth noting that taking away things that generations of Americans have been told is a right, is not often ushered in by something so simple as the retirement of a Supreme Court Justice.
The spirit of America is protest. No party has a monopoly on the market. That’s why it works.