THERE HAS BEEN a lot of wondering out loud about why news outlets are describing the folks holed up in the federal building in Oregon as “militia” rather than “terrorists”. Well, this time I’m with the journalists: apparently the occupiers have a legal name, organizational command structure, and even uniforms (or at least distinguishing markers); they have seized a government building and are only threatening force against government forces that attempt forcibly to remove them from their ensconcement. They are, on this reading, in the strict sense of the term, rebel militia.
We’re in a very bad, dark place right now: when we stop talking with one another, really, really terrible things happen; when we stop talking with one another, we almost immediately start doing terrible things to one another. So, let’s tone down the rhetoric, which, at its present level of fervor is already hastening the hour in which we shall abandon all pretense of recourse to words: everyone has a legitimate gripe, and no one is without some share of responsibility for the present precarious state of our national discourse.
If we look deep in our history and our doctrine, we will find this admonition, offered by our greatest president on the eve of our greatest crisis – a crisis precipitated in no small measure by another seizure of another federal building by another militia:
My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The alternative? That, too, is in our history: remember how we treated that other rebel militia; federal troops under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859.
Remember what happened after that?
Remember what happened after that.
The next time you are angry, and ready to demand justice untempered by mercy: the next time you are tempted to let another’s wickedness be proof of your own virtue; the next time you feel that enough is enough; that the time for words is passed; that the time for deeds is come; remember what comes after that.