Sunday, March 14, 2010

Apocalypse Now? Oath Keepers And Tea Parties

The April edition of Mother Jones features a cover story entitled "Age of Treason". When I first started to read it, I was prepared to be alarmed. But by the time I finished reading it, I wondered whether I, too, am a candidate for treason.

A group called Oath Keepers is a new phenomenon in the military. Apparently, a small, but significant number of active servicemen is prepared to lay down arms and refuse to obey orders if circumstances require it. Purists contend this is nothing new, just application of the old rule that soliders must not obey unlawful orders. What might trigger a failure to obey orders?

According to Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, soldiers should not engage in the following on American soil:

1. Conducting warrantless searches;
2. Holding American citizens as enemy combatants or subjecting them to military tribunals;
3. Imposing martial law against citizens;
4. Blockading U.S. cities;
5. Forcing citizens into detention camps;
6. Cooperating with foreign troops asked to intervene on U.S. soil.

Hard to argue with that. In the normal course, these measures seem extreme. (Except for the warrantless search part; thank the Supreme Court for eviscerating the Fourth Amendment and creating so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that warrants increasingly are not required to search at all.)

But times are changing, Mother Jones reports. In September 2008, the Army's 3rd Infantry 1st Brigade Combat Team began to train in techniques to quell civil unrest and crowd control. The ostensible purpose of this training is associated with provision of humanitarian relief following a domestic disaster or terror attack. But ask Japanese-Americans how it felt to spend World War II in concentration camps to learn how quickly the worm can turn. Mother Jones reports that the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern over the scope of this training.

Oath Keepers was apparently founded by Rhodes, who, at 44, is a recent Yale Law School graduate. While a student at Yale, he won an award is 2004 for his paper, "Solving the Puzzle of Enemy Combatant Status." He has also written for the magazine associated with Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyer's College, The Warrior. (Full disclosure: So have I. I wrote an essay or two in America On The Verge, a special post 9-11 edition in 2002 devoted to the threat to liberty posed by the Government's response to the 9-11 terror attacks. See:

Oath Keepers doesn't seem like a run of the mill militia group to me, although it has surfaced on the list of hate groups maintained by the Southern Povery Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. But I wonder whether the group belongs there: Since when is suspicion of government and a commitment to liberty synonymous with hatred?

I am not alone in my ambivalence about this group and others like it. Jonathan Raban's piece in the March 25 The New York Review of Books, "Inside the Tea Party," is more than reporting. Raban attended the recent Nashville convention with mixed motives: Sure he wanted to report, but he also attended as "a recently joined member of Tea Party Nation." He reports: "I had my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of warrantless wiretapping, ... I counted on my libertarian streak to give me common ground with my fellow tea partiers." I get that, even if I cannot look at Sarah Palin with anything other than bemusement.

Raban reports divisions within the ranks of the Tea Party crowd in Nashville. There was a little too much prayer and gratuitous Bible-banging for many folks. Indeed, it is the prayer and religiosity that keep me from following this movement's doings with anything other than misgivings.

But I wonder, really, whehter these groups aren't on to something. What happens when a wholesale lack of confidence in American institutions takes root? I watch Obama with growing disappointment: We still have not disbanded Guantanamo. The commitment to criminal trials for terror suspects is in question. We're bailing out billionaires too big to fail and letting the middle class sink. Increasingly, I watch events around me and feel like a stranger in a strange land.

"America, love it or leave it," some say. But that's naive. Whose country is it anyhow? Wall Street's? The military-industrial complex's? The chattering political and economic elite that strangle our institutions with the sterile vision of privileged nabobs? Look at Obama's recent nominees to the federal courts: It is the same old crop of folks burnished to a dull and homogenous sheen by the nation's status factories.

I'll be keeping an eye on the Oath Keepers. Here's a link to their web site: It doesn't appear that there is an affiliate for lawyers and those who have not served in the military. But that could change. Lawyers no less than soliders have sworn an oath to protect the Constitution.

Corrected: Hat Tip, Jim.